School Bus Safety

“Oh, the wheels on the bus go round and round...,” and there are approximately one-half million school bus drivers in this country, driving about 450,000 yellow school buses every school day, transporting around 24 million of the 48 million students attending school and school-related events daily, covering roughly four billion (yes, billion) miles of roadway annually.

Then there are the other 24 million students who get to and from school, and to school-related events, by other means. Those transportation modes may include transit vehicles, motor coaches, vans and mini-vans, passenger vehicles, walking and cycling.

So many vehicles on the road, taking so many children to school each day can create a recipe for potential disaster. Every year, more transportation accidents resulting in serious injuries and fatalities among students are recorded.

Accordingly, the topic of pupil transportation safety has captured the attention of numerous groups, including the United States Congress. Finding out how and when students are being injured or killed, and ways to provide safer transportation, has increased in importance as this hot-button issue undergoes intense scrutiny.

Churning Reports, Making Recommendations

A June 1999 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, “Pupil Transportation in Vehicles Not Meeting Federal School Bus Standards,” looked at the specific safety issues of occupant crash protection and the general crashworthiness of nonconforming buses, “the adequacy of state regulations and guidelines governing nonconforming buses,” and “the adequacy of state laws governing the use of restraint systems in non-conforming buses.” The report was prompted by four crashes, which occurred in 1998 and early 1999 and took the lives of eight children and one adult.

Three of the “buses” in question in that report were 15- or more-passenger vans, none of which met federal crashworthiness standards for joint strength and roof rollover, or occupant protection standards. The fourth vehicle involved in the accidents investigated was a specialty motor coach.

Furthermore, in each of the van accidents, students were not using, or appeared not to have used, any available lap or lap/shoulder belts in the vehicle. The motor coach was not equipped with passenger restraints. Without restraints, children were ejected from the vehicles, or seriously injured, sometimes fatally, by bodily impact with interior surfaces. The report recommended that restraints, such as lap or lap/shoulder belts, should be used if available.

Jennifer Hopkins, project manager for the NTSB report, says that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking at what would be an appropriate restraint system for school buses, or if additional protective padding within the buses would be preferable to a belt system.

Occupant protection, say Hopkins and Jeanmarie Poole of the NTSB’s office of safety recommendations and advocacy, hasn’t been addressed since the mid-1970s. However, the federal standards that were established to regulate occupant protection and structural strength are applicable only to the yellow school buses most commonly associated with student transportation.

Yet, they explain, vehicle dealers are prohibited from selling new vans to schools for the express purpose of transporting students, if the vehicles don’t conform to federal school bus safety standards. That prohibition does not extend to used vehicles, nor is it necessarily applicable to any schools other than public schools.

According to Hopkins, 18 states mandate school buses as the only allowable method for transporting public school students to and from school, and 25 states only allow the use of school buses for transporting students to and from school-related events. Only South Carolina passed a law to make the school bus transportation mandate applicable to private schools, as well.

Since the NTSB operates in an advisory capacity, it can’t enforce regulations, but can only make recommendations concerning the use of school buses. The recommendations made in the report were forwarded to the individual states and to NHTSA for review. NHTSA is the only agency that has legislative authority to enforce federal safety standards for vehicles.

Yellow school buses are still the safest mode of transportation because they are the most regulated vehicles on the road, says Charles Gauthier, executive director of the National Association of State Directors for Pupil Transportation Services. Moreover, he adds, “School bus drivers are among the best trained drivers on the road.”

Gauthier estimates there are about 10,000 school bus accidents per year, with less than two percent of the students involved sustaining any significant injuries. Still, he says, hundreds of students are killed each school year--and only 10 or fewer of those fatalities annually occur while riding school buses.

Forming Committees, Seeking Answers

In the past few years, Congress has become interested in school transportation safety for students not riding school buses. During 1996 Congressional hearings, when testimony was given about the number of children who rode transit buses to get to school, members of Congress were surprised by the numbers of students not being transported on school buses.

Under the auspices of the Education Equity Act, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) received a mandate from Congress to conduct a study concerning the safety of students transported to and from school and school-related events, especially by modes other than school buses, explains Dr. Beverly Huey, Ph.D., senior program officer for the NAS.

The study, under the sponsorship of the NHTSA and the Federal Highway Administration, was started in October 1999, and a report is due to be delivered to the NHTSA in September of this year. The committee for the study is made up of volunteers with expertise in the transportation field, Huey says.

Dr. Doug Robertson, Ph.D., director of the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and chair of the NAS study committee, says the committee, in addition to reviewing the safety issues, will seek to determine what is known about the various transportation modes and the rates of accident occurrence for each mode.

Huey says the study itself is still in the developmental process, as the charge for the study was extremely broad. The committee must determine what data analysis will be conducted on any information obtained, and whether any conclusions can be drawn from that information.

The Fatality Accident Reporting System, the National Personal Transportation Survey, the General Estimate System and the Highway Safety Information System will be among the databases examined for analysis, Huey says, adding the data being researched will cover 1991 to 1999.

No accident data are collected in a way that specifies student transportation by altemative modes, Robertson says. To arrive at potentially applicable data, they will have to examine accident information with regard to the age of the person involved, the time of day, day of the week, time of the year and where the accident occurred. Accident narratives will be examined in depth, only to validate any assumptions being made on the data in aggregate.

As noted in the group’s Statement of Task, “If data are unavailable or insufficient, the committee will recommend new data collection and implementation guidelines.” Additionally, the statement specifies, “Issues relevant to determining risk associated with each mode will be discussed in the context of both occupant and pedestrian injury and death, with consideration of the behavioral and developmental characteristics of children.”

Huey says the committee will also look at how to implement any data collected. “You don’t want to make pie-in-the-sky recommendations,” she remarks.

Riding the Bus

According to Gauthier, approximately 830 children were killed in this country during the 1998-99 school year, with about 680 of them killed in vehicles and some 150 killed as pedestrians or on bicycles. The state of Texas had one of the highest number of deaths (52), all of which were in passenger vehicles. The same was found in Califomia, which registered 44 deaths in passenger vehicles.

In most cases, Gauthier notes, the accidents involved teenage drivers. None of those deaths resulted from accidents involving school buses.

What can school districts do to safeguard their students? Gauthier says the best answer is to “get kids out of passenger vehicles and into school buses,” as well as making routes safer.

Unfortunately, many school districts are cutting back on the number of students to whom school bus service is being provided, rather than increasing service. Gauthier says the problem is that the dollars for school busing come out of the same educational funds as does the money to pay for educational programs. “We’re the orphan on that (funding) list,” he remarks.

Robbin Rittner-Heir is a Dayton-based freelance writer with experience in education issues.