NASHVILLE, Tenn. — New school bus drivers in Tennessee will have to be at least 25 years old, and the state will set standards for driver and transportation manager training, under a newly enacted bill.
As of Jan. 1, 2018, the new law will raise the minimum age for new school bus drivers in Tennessee from 21 to 25. In the Chattanooga crash, school bus driver Johnthony Walker was 24 years old. He now faces six counts of vehicular homicide and other charges.
Under the new law, current school bus drivers who are between 21 and 25 years old will be grandfathered in, so they can renew their existing endorsement. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that about 130 current Tennessee school bus drivers who are under age 25 will be grandfathered in.
According to the latest state data collected by School Bus Fleet, there are approximately 9,178 school buses in Tennessee. This suggests that the 130 current drivers who are between 21 and 25 years old operate about 1.4% of the school buses in the state.
Larry Riggsbee, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Pupil Transportation, told SBF that school districts in Tennessee are struggling with school bus driver shortage, as is the case across the nation, and raising the minimum age won’t help on that front.
“Obviously, that will eliminate some people that you could have as drivers,” Riggsbee said, but he added that bigger factors need to be addressed to mitigate the driver shortage, such as offering more competitive compensation and improving student behavior on buses.
“We’ve got to work on making this job better,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Riggsbee recalled a recent conversation that he had with a school bus driver who “was having a difficult time [with the students] that day on her route.” While she was driving, she saw two signs advertising employment opportunities — both of which paid more than her school bus driving job and wouldn’t involve dealing with student discipline.
Beyond raising the minimum age for school bus drivers, HB 322 includes measures to increase state oversight of pupil transportation. The legislation directs the Tennessee Department of Education (DOE) and the Tennessee Department of Safety to:
• Develop and deliver a mandatory annual training program for all transportation supervisors.
• Establish a system for monitoring district and charter school compliance with state and federal laws regarding student transportation services.
• Prepare and annually update and disseminate guidelines on best practices for the management of student transportation services.
A separate proposal introduced after the Chattanooga crash, Rep. JoAnne Favors’ HB 395, would have required seat belts on school buses, but Favors pulled the bill from consideration for the rest of the year. She told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that she didn’t think the bill had enough support in the Finance Committee, but she plans to bring it back next year.
Instead of seat belts, the legislation that Gov. Haslam signed, HB 322, takes other angles in attempting to bolster school bus safety. Along with the previously listed measures, the new law stipulates that:
• School districts will have to develop formal policies for responding to school bus safety complaints.
• School districts that contract out their bus service will need to have a transportation supervisor to oversee the service.
• School bus drivers will have to undergo training based on state standards, which will include such topics as student management, distracted driving, driving techniques, evacuations, loading and unloading, and mirror usage.
According to Riggsbee, for the most part school districts in Tennessee are already covering those points, including the range of driver training topics. However, one significant change brought about by the legislation will be the hiring of a dedicated state director of pupil transportation and a support person in the Tennessee DOE. Riggsbee said that will bring back a high level of involvement in pupil transportation by the state DOE that has been missing for many years.
For the addition of the two state department positions, along with costs involved in the training mandates, the new law will increase state expenditures by an estimated $350,000 annually, according to a fiscal analysis.
Riggsbee said that, overall, he sees the newly passed legislation as a “positive step” in responding to the Chattanooga crash as well as another high-profile fatal incident in Tennessee: the December 2014 school bus crash in Knoxville in which two students and an aide were killed.
“Unfortunately in Tennessee, with these two horrific accidents, we’ve lost the confidence of parents. We’ve got to correct that,” Riggsbee said. “I think this [new law] is a step forward in doing that. It won’t happen overnight, but I think we’re on the right track.”