School bus safety

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It’s a horrifying moment when news comes that a school bus has been involved in a crash, as one was today in Mendota Heights.

A usual question after a school bus accident is: “Why aren’t there seat belts on school buses?”

The National Association for Pupil Transportation says they aren’t needed:

Because of its superior size and extensive structural and other safety equipment a school bus tends to come out best in most crashes. Instead of seat belts, school buses use a passive approach called “compartmentalization, “well padded, high back, energy absorbing seats. Simply stated, the goal of this approach is to package children like eggs. It has performed extremely well in providing a high level of safety to the many sizes of children who ride school buses, ranging from pre-schoolers up to high school football players riding to games in full gear.

The National Highway Safety Administration says school buses are seven eight times safer than cars or light trucks.

The school bus occupant fatality rate of 0.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is considerably lower than the fatality rates for passenger cars or light trucks (1.44 per 100 million VMT). The relative safety of school buses was addressed in 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in “The Relative Risks of School Travel: A National Perspective and Guidance for Local Community Risk Assessment.”[5] It found that there are about 815 fatalities related to school transportation per year. Only 2 percent are associated with official school transportation, compared to 22 percent due to walking/bicycling to or from school, and 75 percent from

passenger car transportation to or from school.

Which means that if you give your kid a ride to school, he/she is at greater risk than if he/she took the bus.

(MPR Photo/Tom Weber)

  • Elizabeth

    Who are we kidding? There aren’t seat belts on school buses because it would be time-consuming and inconvenient to have the kids buckle and unbuckle and for the driver to enforce that. There are places where school buses do have seat belts. Roll-over accidents are still very dangerous for students on school buses. But schools resist it because they don’t want to spend the time waiting at bus stops while the kids deal with seat belts. It also allows more kids to be packed in. There isn’t room for 3 seat belts in one of those seats, but they are considered seats for 3. School buses are often very crowded. My children have even had to stand before when there weren’t enough seats. Really, school buses are chaotic places where SO many things are less than ideal. But changing that would require a staff member there on each bus to supervise the kids, someone who isn’t also driving. That costs money, and it would be a very unpleasant job. It’s hard enough to find bus drivers.

  • Mike R

    There aren’t seatbelts on city buses, either.

  • Elizabeth T

    This boils down to risk management. It is not only a question of seat belt installation. What are we going to get in return for money spent installing seat belts and enforcing usage? How much is that going to reduce the rate of injury?

    If the fatality goes from 0.2/million VMT down to 0.1 … is that enough to warrant the financial and time expenditure? Expecting to have a 0 fatality rate is unrealistic. The stats above are 16 deaths per year from official school transportation. Does anyone think that number will be significantly reduced if the kids wear seat belts?

    One must look at the cause of fatalities beyond “on the bus”. If the bus gets hit by a train, it isn’t going to matter whether they’re belted in. Rolled vehicles are certainly dangerous – but how often do they actually happen?

    Is there a financial decision made regarding the value of a child’s life? Yes, there is. Be honest. That’s what insurance policies are for. One balances the likelihood of an accident, the potential severity, and buys insurance to cover the potential costs of the children’s health/life. The school may say they don’t – but the school’s insurance company quite assuredly does.

    I’m more curious about the rate of injuries, rather than only fatalities. Fatality rates implying dead children gets attention and horror. But the injury rate between cars & buses would be equally interesting and probably a more realistic day-to-day factor. Simply because one is more likely to get injured.

    And, while city buses don’t have seat belts, they are also not designed with the same safety features. The seats there assuredly are not packing me in like an egg. Unless it’s a scrambled egg.

  • kennedy

    Bus safety is a matter of physics. In an accident between a larger and smaller vehicle, occupants of the larger vehicle are less likely to be injured. The large mass of the bus makes it inherently safer than most other vehicles on the road.

    Reminds me of the “Egg vs Rock” song I heard on the Current’s previous morning show.