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Lawmakers Forget Study of Seat Belts on School Buses

(Story created: 11/16/05)

State lawmakers voted last year to create a special committee to study whether school buses should have seat belts. But get this: they forgot to meet. Now, as a result of a NewsChannel 5 investigation, the issue is now going to get serious attention on Capitol Hill.

It was a school bus accident in Hermitage back in October 2003 that left a seven-year-old girl battling a serious brain injury and prompted lawmakers to talk about seat belts on school buses.

"I thought it important back then, and it's important now," state Rep. Ben West, D-Nashville, tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

Last year, West sponsored a resolution to create a special committee to make recommendations to lawmakers, and it passed -- 95-1 in the House, 27-0 in the Senate.

And then, nothing happened.

"It was just an oversight. It shouldn't have been overlooked, but it was," says House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.

Naifeh and Senate Speaker John Wilder never appointed members to the committee.

So there was no study, no recommendations, no action.

"As things happened, this just happened to fall through the cracks," Naifeh tells Phil Williams.

"Once you made us aware of it, I have appointed the committee."

Naifeh appointed West, along with Reps. Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, and Richard Montgomery, D-Sevierville.  The Senate's clerk says Wilder too will appoint members to review the issue.

This follows a NewsChannel 5 investigation of a school bus crash -- a crash that, some say, ended up being a real-life test of seat belts on school buses.

"My five-year-old granddaughter gets on a bus to go to public school without seat belts," Naifeh says.

"How do you feel about that?" Williams asks.

"I feel we really need to give it a good look. I would like to know that they did have seat belts on them."

West says, "It makes parents call their legislators, 'Why can't we do this to protect my child or my grandchild.'"

Separate legislation filed by West to require seat belts led to an analysis that concluded retrofitting all school buses in the state could cost a whopping $84 million.

But just phasing in the requirement as new buses are purchased could cost less than $6 million a year.

"I've learned a lot from your story," West tells Williams, "and what I've learned is: forget retroactive. Let's start at a certain date."

As NewsChannel 5 reported, that's exactly how the issue is being handled in California.

And with scenes like the school bus crashes highlighted by NewsChannel 5, West hopes it will happen sooner rather than later.

"I think that out of this whole expose of yours, we'll have seat belts starting next year in new buses across the state to protect our children."

West says he hopes to begin committee hearings within two weeks.

More information:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration position paper -- Defends compartmentalization (the current safety standard)
NHTSA's Report to Congress -- Finds some potential benefits to lap-shoulder belts
National Transportation Safety Board study -- Finds compartmentalization "incomplete"
NTSB investigation -- Report of bus-train collision reaffirms limits of compartmentalization
School Transportation News -- Analysis of seat belt debate
National Coalition for School Bus Safety -- Position of advocacy group
Safeguard -- Web site of seat belt developer
State of Missouri -- Gov. Matt Blunt pushes lap-shoulder belt on new buses

Contact the governor
Contact state senators
Contact state representatives

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