School Buses

How Safe Are School Buses?

Just how safe is your child’s school bus? In mid-March, a Pennsylvania school bus and tractor-trailer collided, killing the truck driver and injuring more than a dozen students. The accident happened the same day that a school bus overturned on a highway in Washington, sending three students to the hospital in critical condition while injuring dozens more. Now, many parents across the country are questioning school bus safety rules – and asking, “Where are the seat belts?”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), school buses are the “safest method” for transporting children to school. But what exactly does that superlative really mean? NHTSA cites accident statistics that show school buses have a fatality rate of 0.2 per every 100 million miles traveled, compared with 1.5 for passenger cars. In fact, out of the 24 million children that rode school buses in 2002, there were only four fatalities. In comparison, 800 children die each year in a passenger vehicle during normal school transportation hours. What makes these buses so safe?

Out of the 24 million children that rode school buses in 2002, there were only four fatalities.

School buses are designed like an egg carton. Seats are placed closely together, solidly anchored to the bus floor and well-padded. In the event of a front-impact accident, the seat absorbs the impact, evenly distributing the impact over a child’s upper torso. One would think adding seat belts could only increase the safety of school buses, right?

Michael Martin, the executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, says that seat belts may actually pose a threat to children’s safety on a school bus. Martin has said that children wearing seat belts during a school bus crash suffer from “lap belt syndrome” injuries.

“If the child is wearing a lap belt, the child is hinged at the waist (and) the upper torso gets whipped forward and the vast majority of the impact is absorbed by the head,” says Martin. Younger children are especially vulnerable, since a disproportionate amount of their weight is carried in their heads and upper bodies.

But school bus safety advocates argue that NHTSA’s statistics are outdated and only half the story. According to the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, most crashes are side-impact or rollover accidents, when a seat belt restraint could potentially save a child’s life.

Martin disagrees. Citing lap belt syndrome, Martin argues, “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.” Martin contends that many children are likely to wear a seat belt incorrectly – such as a child who purposely slips off the shoulder strap – which could do more harm than good.

So, who decides whether seat belts are required on school buses? Like many educational issues, the federal government leaves this one to the states and individual school districts. Adding seat belts to buses is expensive, and for school districts that are already strapped for cash, spending money on seat belts rather than hiring teachers or purchasing new classroom resources just doesn’t make financial sense.