After six elementary school children were killed in a school bus crash in Chattanooga in November 2016, state lawmakers enacted new regulations that went into effect on Jan. 1. In that crash, authorities accused driver Johnthony Walker of driving too fast and using his cellphone while driving.
The new law sets a minimum age of 25 for bus drivers, dictates they complete a school bus driver safety program, have five consecutive years of driving experience and requires school districts to have transportation supervisors. School bus bumpers must also include a phone number for complaints that must be investigated by their supervisors within 24 hours.
Wayne Sams, the bus supervisor for Carter County Schools, said he thinks the law — combined with the new $50 fine for the use of cellphones in active school zones — will be sufficient for ensuring safety.
“I think that’s going to be a good start,” he said. “We haven’t had any major trouble there, but I think it’ll get people thinking about it more.”
The law stops short of requiring seat belts on school buses, something Sams said could make emergency situations worse.
“We always worry about what would happen if it flipped or caught on fire,” he said. “How would we get 50 or 60 kids out quickly?”
Sams and other transportation supervisors throughout the region said complaints about bus drivers should be taken seriously.
He pointed to the Chattanooga case, in which Hamilton County Department of Education records showed multiple complaints about Walker’s driving.
“That driver was reported multiple times and nothing was done,” Sams said.
Despite issues including a serious crash that left 39 students injured in 2012 and past suspensions for speeding drivers, Washington County Schools Transportation Supervisor Randy Adams said he thinks the new experience and age requirements are going to make it too difficult to find new bus drivers.
“(The cellphone law) is a good measure,” Adams said. “A lot of this other stuff isn’t. It might make it harder getting drivers.”
For the school bus driver safety program, Adams said he thinks the additional training requirements will make it more difficult to get much-needed drivers out on the streets in the midst of a shortage of drivers in the county school district.
“We train our drivers enough now, but now they want us to spend 20 more hours training them,” he said. “It’s going to be rough.”
But Johnson City Police Lt. Becky West said she thinks the new law could help deter the use of cellphones by bus drivers. As for the increased oversight of bus drivers, she said school bus drivers need to be prepared to “jump through the necessary hoops” and described the tragedy in Chattanooga as an “eye-opening experience.”
“I think they need to be pretty strong laws because you can’t just let anybody drive a school bus,” she said. “You can’t take a chance with little kids.”
Over the years, she said she’s caught some out-of-district bus drivers speeding but has yet to encounter any problems with Johnson City Schools’ drivers. West said Johnson City Transit Director Eldonna Janutolo “runs a tight ship.”
“She’s got an excellent department and excellent school bus drivers,” West said. “I teach defensive driving courses and I brag about them all the time. She’s got a great crew.”
Officials from Unicoi County and Elizabethton City schools did not immediately return requests for comment.