MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - With a new school year on the horizon, a Tennessee Democratic congressman wants to make the school buses that thousands of Mid-South children ride on safer.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen has introduced a bill alongside Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, which directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to implement new school bus safety rules.
"The National Transportation Safety Board recommended this several years ago. We're trying to get it passed through legislation to save kids' lives. There's no more precious cargo you've got than kids," said Cohen.
Tennessee state records show during the 2017-18 school year there were 119 school bus accidents in Shelby County, which left 12 people with minor injuries.
Cohen’s bill, the School Bus Safety Act, which he has introduced before, calls for seat belts to be installed on every school bus in the country in order to prevent serious injuries.
He says deadly crashes like a November 2016 bus crash in Chattanooga, which killed six elementary students, show why buses need seat belts.
"I was just on a bus when I was in El Paso this past week visiting the border and there was a requirement that we all have seat belts on and it made sense," Cohen said.
The bill would require school buses be equipped with fire suppression systems and a firewall to keep engine fires from spreading into the passenger compartment.
It would also require automatic emergency braking, an electronic stability control system and an event data recorder.
While experts say buckling up keeps people safe in cars, not all of them agree seat belts will work on school buses.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says because of their large size and seat designs, school buses protect passengers from crash forces a lot better than cars do.
On its website, NHTSA wrote: "...the best way to provide crash protection to passengers of large school buses is through a concept called 'compartmentalization.' This requires that the interior of large buses protect children without them needing to buckle up. Through compartmentalization, children are protected from crashes by strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs."
Cohen said he has been fighting for seat belts on school buses since he was a Tennessee state legislator.
"Seat belts work. Seat belts save lives," said Cohen.
Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, has endorsed the Cohen-Duckworth legislation.
“Our children deserve a safe ride every time, in every type of vehicle,” said Martin. “We are proud to support the School Bus Safety Act and applaud Sen. Duckworth and Congressman Cohen for their dedication to child passenger safety.”
Cohen's bill would create a grant program to help school districts modify their school buses.
NHTSA said between 2008 and 2017, more than 1,200 people were killed in school-transportation-related crashes -- and average of 124 deaths per year.