Haslam spokeswoman: ‘Political affiliation did not play a role’ in appointing school safety panel

Through a spokeswoman, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s office is pushing back against criticism of his appointments to a  task force assigned to study school safety and recommend revisions in state laws or policy, reports the Times Free Press. Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris has been the lead critic, saying the 16-member panel is solid Republican with no Democratic members “where a bipartisan consensus is sorely needed.”

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Legislator seeks state review after one school bus driver falls asleep, another charged with DUI

One Washington County school bus driver fell asleep at the wheel on Tuesday, leading to a mishap that sent several children to a hospital with minor injuries. On Wednesday, another Washington County school bus driver was arrested for DUI. On Friday, the county school superintendent, Kimber Halliburton, announced she had fired the system’s transportation director.

Now, state Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) has asked the state Department of Education to review the school system’s safety procedures, reports WJHL TV.

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Diane Black unveils opioid, public safety plan; calls for addicts to be treated in prison

Republican gubernatorial candidate Diane Black is releasing her first major policy proposal concerning the opioid crisis and her plans for keeping Tennesseans safe.

The plan calls for rehabbing drug addicts in prison as a cost-saving measure, and hiring 25 new TBI agents to help fight drug trafficking (Gov. Bill Haslam is calling for 10 new agents in this year’s budget).

The initiative also calls for jailing demonstrators who “block streets, riot and engage in violent acts in the name of ‘protest,'” and for boosting penalties for people who “desecrate monuments or incite or abet others in desecrating a monument.”

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Dept. of Safety returning $112K in misspent fed forfeiture funds

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security had $112,614 in inappropriate spending on food and catering that it received from federal forfeiture funds, according to a U.S. Department of Justice audit. Department officials say they will  reimburse the federal government for the questioned expenditures.

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Alexander, Corker, Duncan seek fed focus on alleged defective guardrails

Three Tennessee congressmen – Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, along with Rep. John Duncan Jr. – are asking federal officials to consider revoking their approval for the use of highway guardrails linked to four fatalities in Tennessee, reports WJHL-TV.

In the letter, they asked FHWA Acting Deputy Administrator Butch Waidelich, Jr. to consider revoking its letter of eligibility for the X-Lite Terminal Guard rail issued in 2011.

The eligibility letter indicates the product has been tested and is eligible for federal reimbursements for states that use it.

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Dad tells legislators TDOT at fault in daughter’s death

In tearful testimony Tuesday, the father of a 17-year-old Lenoir City girl whose death was the result of an apparently defective guardrail demanded Tennessee lawmakers take action to prevent future deaths, reports The Tennessean.

Steven Eimers, the father of Hannah Eimers, gave an emotional presentation before the House Transportation Committee, blaming the culture within the Tennessee Department of Transportation and shoddy technology for his daughter’s death. He demanded new independent inspections of guardrails, felony charges for improperly installing them and incentives for state workers to report faulty installation and damage.

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Haslam’s school bus safety bill doesn’t require seat belts

Gov. Bill Haslam and Rep. JoAnne Favors have dueling approaches to address safety concerns following the Nov. 21 crash of a school bus in Chattanooga in which six Woodmore Elementary School students died, reports the Times-Free Press.

Haslam introduced legislation Wednesday that seeks to address age requirements for school bus drivers as well as mandate new procedures for school systems, bus drivers and companies to follow. (Note: It’s HB322, sponsored by Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, at the administration’s request.)

But the governor’s approach omits a requirement that Favors wants that new school buses have safety belt restraint systems.

Favors, D-Chattanooga, said her bill, which she intends to introduce shortly, would require that after July 1, 2018, that new buses owned, operated or leased by public or private school systems have restraint systems that are federally approved. 

Her intent is to phase in the requirement so that school systems and contract drivers or companies wouldn’t be faced with huge expenses on the front end.

Meanwhile, Favors said she agreed to introduce a bill, filed earlier today, that only addresses new age requirements for drivers and driver backgrounds. That was done at the request of Senate Minority Lee Harris, D-Memphis, Favors said.

The Chattanooga lawmaker said that’s not her seat belt bill and that she won’t be deterred by the governor’s preferred approach that rejects calls for school bus seat belts.

“No, absolutely not,” Favors said. “It’s needed because you do need restraints. I’m hoping it will pass [this year], but if doesn’t it will involve us all in dialogue about this. 

“And,” the representative added, “we’ll just keep doing it until we get it passed.”

National safety leader cites Chattanooga crash in calling for school bus seat belts

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday re-emphasized the agency’s call for seat belts on school buses in the aftermath of a crash in Chattanooga that killed six students.

Administrator Mark Rosekind said at a transportation safety conference in Washington that while school buses remain the safest way for children to get to and from school, they “can be safer.”

“And as the recent tragic crash in Chattanooga reminds us, there is no more heartrending, dreadful, tragic crash than when children are involved,” he said.

An average of five school-age children a year have died on school buses between 2006 and 2016, according to data compiled by the agency.

Until recently, federal regulators did not push the idea of requiring safety restraints. That changed in November 2015 when Rosekind called for a three-point seat belt on every bus.

Administrators in school districts where the over-the-shoulder belts have been introduced have noticed that they also help keep students in their seats and reduce disciplinary problems and distractions for drivers, said Derek Graham, director of pupil transportation in North Carolina.

… An NTSB investigation into a 2014 school bus wreck in Anaheim, California, found that one child “was in fact saved in that crash” by wearing a seat belt, Molloy said. By contrast, the agency found that school bus crashes in Chesterfield, New Jersey, and Port St. Lucie, Florida, resulted in fatalities that could have been prevented by the use of seat belts.

–Full story HERE.

Tragedy revives legislator (and Haslam) interest in mandating school bus seat belts

After a three-fatality school bus accident in Knoxville, a Knoxville legislator proposed mandatory school bus safety belts legislation in the 2015 legislative session. The bill (HB770) failed.

After a five-fatality school bus accident in Chattanooga on Monday, at least two Chattanooga legislators – Democratic Rep. JoAnn Favors and Republican Rep. Gerald McCormick — are proposing mandatory school bus safety belts legislation be enacted in the 2017 session. And this time, Gov. Bill Haslam may be ready to join the effort.

From the Times-Free Press:

“It’s time to have that conversation” about Tennessee school bus safety, including seat belt requirements, Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday.

“We had a wreck last year in Knoxville with a school bus, last week in Nashville, and obviously, the tragedy in Chattanooga,” Haslam said. “I think it’s time to have all the parties come to the table and have a thoughtful conversation about what can we do to make our school buses as safe as we can.”

… “I don’t want to point fingers who was against it (the 2015 bill) because of the expenses,” McCormick said. “I’m sure it will be expensive. But this is an area where the state should certainly step in and help with the expenses and not [make local systems] shoulder the entire burden.”

The lawmaker added: “It’s unfortunate it took a tragedy like this to focus attention on it, but sometimes that’s what it takes to wake people up.”

Favors, the House Democratic minority whip, said she would introduce legislation to require seat belts in school buses when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

She, too, noted a school bus seat belt bill was proposed in response to a December 2014 Knoxville school bus crash that killed two students and a teacher’s aide. The bill was shipped off for summer legislative study in 2015.

It went nowhere in 2016, despite being restricted to only purchases of new school buses and extending the implementation date.

…McCormick said that with booming state surpluses during the last fiscal year, the state can afford a one-time expenditure for current bus fleets maintained by local school districts. And there should be money going forward as well to require new buses to have the safety features, he said.

“If you have the money, I can’t think of a better place to put it for our children going to and from school,” McCormick said.

Note: A further Haslam quote,  from WTVF-TV: “Traditionally, school buses have been the responsibility of the local education authorities, the counties and their school boards,” he said. “If the state passed a new law regarding that, would we take on some of the financial obligation. I think that is all to be discussed.”

The News Sentinel has a story on a UT professor promoting school bus seat belts, HERE. And from the look-back machine, here a News Sentinel story on introduction of the failed bill last session (bt then-Rep. Joe Armstrong) is HERE. House Speaker Beth Harwell tried similar legislation back in 2007.

Audit says waiting time at driver license stations longer than reported

A new comptroller’s audit raises doubts about the accuracy of how the Haslam administration measures wait times for driver’s license applicants at Department of Safety and Homeland Security-run license stations, reports the Times-Free Press.

The problem?

“[W]ait times are measured from the time a client receives a ticket at the driver license station, not when the client first enters the line at the state, to the time the examiner enters the client’s transaction into the computer upon the transactions,” auditors from Comptroller Justin Wilson’s office said.

…Regarding the driver wait time issue, auditors visited several stations to see how it all worked for themselves.

“Although we did not see lines outside the buildings during the middle of the day, some clients stated that they did wait a considerable amount of time before they got their tickets,” the 49-page audit says.

Some auditors were told of waits as long as two hours. The department is supposed to get transactions processed in under 30 minutes.

…Auditors noted the first step in the Driver Services Division’s Q-Matic computer system process, which is used to track wait times, calls for issuing tickets to each application either upon entering the (station) or, if the line is longer, setting the ticket issuer up outside the station.

“Driver license station staff are clearly not doing this,” auditors said and then went on to raise the key issue. “Without taking into consideration when clients first attempt to get services at the stations (i.e., when they first enter a line), the division cannot accurately measure all customer service delays at these stations.”

Note: The full audit report is HERE.