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VOL. 41 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 31, 2017

Tennessee school bus seat belt bill barely clears committee

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NASHVILLE (AP) — A bill that would require seat belts on Tennessee school buses narrowly advanced Tuesday as a child injured in a deadly Chattanooga bus crash watched.

Canasia Williams, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Woodmore Elementary, hugged her grandmother after lawmakers voted 9-7 to advance the bill. The girl suffered a concussion and hurt her hand when she was thrown from her seat during the school bus crash that killed six children last November.

"We've just got to keep fighting," the girl's grandmother, Selbrea Rhodes, said after the House Transportation Committee vote. Canasia said she believes her schoolmates would still be alive if they'd had on seat belts.

The bus driver has pleaded not guilty to six counts of vehicular manslaughter in a crash. Authorities have said Johnthony Walker was speeding when the bus swerved into a tree with 37 elementary school students aboard.

Several lawmakers remained skeptical of the seat belt bill's chance of passage amid concerns about its cost and fears that the restraints would trap children if the bus were on fire or submerged in water.

The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. JoAnne Favors, a Democrat from Chattanooga, wept after the vote, saying it cleared an important hurdle.

Favors reworked the bill to keep costs down by requiring that, after July 2019, only new school buses have the restraints.

A fiscal analysis estimated the measure would cost the state more than $2.1 million each year and cost local school districts statewide a combined total of $12.9 million annually.

Seven states currently have laws requiring seat belts on school buses, according to Amanda Essex, a transportation policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those are Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Laws in Louisiana and Texas, Essex said, are not in effect because they have not been funded. At least 27 other states are considering laws that would require the seat belts on buses.

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