Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill into law that will strengthen penalties for school bus drivers caught texting behind the wheel, so much so that a conviction would result in a lifetime ban.
Knox County’s District Attorney General Charme P. Allen proposed the bill in the wake of a 2014 fatal school bus crash, which occurred while the bus driver was texting. Two students and a teacher’s aide died as a result of the crash.
“Following the events of December 2014, I vowed to do everything within my power to make sure that nothing like this happened in Tennessee again,” said Allen. “Thanks to a statewide effort, Tennessee now has the strongest law in the nation when it comes to distracted school bus drivers.”
It is currently a Class C misdemeanor for a school bus driver to use a mobile device while transporting children. The crime, however, is only punishable by a $50 fine and no jail time. Under the new law, effective July 1, texting while driving a school bus or while stopped to load or unload children will become a Class A misdemeanor with a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 30 days and $1,000 fine upon conviction. If convicted, a school bus driver would also be permanently barred from driving a school bus again in the state of Tennessee.
There will be exceptions, however, as school bus drivers will be allowed to use a mobile device to contact dispatch or in the event of an emergency.
“There are simply too many ways for drivers to distract themselves on our roadways,” said Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, the bill’s co-sponsor. “With child safety in mind, we have dramatically broadened and strengthened the law to ensure that our school bus drivers are keeping their focus where it should be.”
Rep. Eddie Smith, who sponsored the bill in the state House, also underscored the importance of the new law.
“This was a vital step to protect our children from unnecessary danger on their way to and from school,” he said. “The strengthened penalties should make it very clear that the safety of our children is our number one priority.”