School Bus Safety
By Christine Beaudry
Most school-age kids ride a bus at some point in their lives, likely without realizing that school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation available. Whether your child rides the bus daily or just on occasion, it's important that parents review school bus safety procedures with their kids.
Those familiar big yellow buses rumbling down the street are a sure sign the school year is underway! For young children in particular, riding the bus can be an exciting adventure and even a rite of passage. Whether children take the bus daily or a just few times a year for a field trip, it is critical they are educated on the fundamentals of school bus safety.
Think your safest bet is to avoid the bus and drive your child to school? You may want to reconsider. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "school buses are the safest motor vehicles on the highways." Children are nearly eight times safer riding a school bus than with their own parents or peers, and school buses have a fatality rate of 0.2 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared with 1.5 for cars.
Michael Martin, Executive Director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, says of the nearly 24 million kids that rode school buses during the 2001-2002 school year, there were "only four fatalities, and that number is declining." Compare this to statistics Martin cites from a recent federal study that "indicated on an annual basis that during normal school transportation hours, about 800 kids on average are killed because they are not in school buses," and you may find yourself more convinced to let your child board a school bus.
Safety without Seat Belts
In May 2002, the NHTSA recommended in a report to Congress that costs and drawbacks of requiring seat belts in school buses outweigh any benefit wearing belts might have.
According to the NHTSA, school bus crash data and studies from the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) show that lap belts on buses would offer "little, if any, added protection in a crash," and in rare situations could actually increase the risk of serious abdominal and neck injuries in young passengers. Combination lap/shoulder belts may provide some benefit on large and small school buses, but there is concern that misuse of the belt (such as a child purposely slipping off the shoulder strap) could result in injuries.
In a study on improving bus safety, the NAS determined that the money needed to buy and maintain seat belts for school buses would be better spent on school bus safety programs and bus modifications that could reduce injuries and save more lives.
Martin says school buses owe much of their safety to an "integrated engineering design—a passive restraint system called 'compartmentalization.' The concept is of eggs in a carton," says Martin. Seats are closely spaced and well anchored, with heavily padded and high backed seats designed to absorb impact. In a crash, children are well protected in their own cushioned compartments.
Most crashes involving school buses are frontal or rear crashes, says Martin. "Kids are usually thrown back against the seat or forward into it. The seat absorbs the impact, and the energy is absorbed across the entire upper torso of a child. If the child is wearing a lap belt, the child is hinged at the waist… the upper torso gets whipped forward and the vast majority of the impact is absorbed by the head." The head, spinal and abdominal injuries associated with "lap belt syndrome" are especially likely with younger kids because they are in early development stages and carry a disproportionate amount of body weight in the upper body, mainly their heads.
Martin says that while not as effective as in frontal or rear crashes, compartmentalization is still effective in side impact or angled impact crashes. "The federal government has done research that a student is probably at greater risk wearing a belt in a side impact crash than if not wearing one," he says, again stating the dangers of lap belt syndrome.