Parenting Magazine, September 1998.
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What you need to know and teach your kids.
This Fall, more than half of all U.S. schoolchildren some 23 million in all will chamber aboard that growling, canary-colored icon of American education, the school bus. If your child is one of them, youll be glad to know that school buses are the safest form of motorized transportation on the American road, bar none.
Mile for mile, your child is seven times safer sitting on a school bus than she is riding in your family car. Thats because school busses are bigger, heavier, and sit higher off the ground than most of the things they collide with. (The vast majority of deaths in school-bus crashes occur in the other vehicle.) The buses unmistakable yellow coloring, flashing lights, and swing-out stop signs make them highly visible to motorists. Their drivers must earn commercial drivers licenses and, in most states, receive special safety training. Even smaller school buses, which are about the size of a passenger van, must meet rigorous federal standards for everything from fuel-tank protection to seating systems and emergency exits.
While there are school-bus accidents in an average year, several hundred children are seriously injured and about 35 are killed these tragic numbers are small when measured against the fact that school buses log four billion miles each year.
But despite this inevitable record, school-bus safety could improve. The question, critics argue, isnt, How safe are school buses compared with other modes of transportation? But, Can school buses themselves be safer? And the answer is yes.
Every weekday morning, Angela Pisano watches from her porch as her two children Gabriella, 7, and Christopher, 11 climb aboard the bus that will ferry them three miles to their Toms River, New Jersey, elementary school. She smiles as she sees them reach down to cinch their lap belts. "It makes me feel good knowing that the driver isnt going to move that bus until everybody is buckled in," says Pisano.
About 150 miles to the southwest, in a suburb of Baltimore, Darleen DiGirolamo performs the same ritual with her 8-year-old son, Matthew except hes not donning a belt. His school bus, like most in the U.S., doesnt have any.
There is no federal mandate currently requiring seat belts for full-size school buses, (although lap belts are required on smaller-model buses, since they offer less crash protection than full-size ones). Only New Jersey and New York (plus a smattering of individual school districts in other states) require lap belts on newly purchased full-size buses; legislation is pending in California.
The school-bus seat-belt debate is one of the longest-running, most emotional, and least understood controversies in child safety. School-transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials argue that, if worn incorrectly, one-piece lap belts the only type currently available on school buses can themselves cause abdominal or neck injuries in some crashes. They also feel the belts arent necessary, because all buses are required by law to have seats that are tall, closely spaced, padded, and slightly flexible, and are designed to absorb crash forces and cushion riders.
Its also been suggested that younger, less dexterous children might not be able to free themselves in an emergency. And, belt critics add, even if a federal mandate were to prevent some injuries, the number would be so small that the cost of installing the belts about $1,500 per bus, plus maintenance would be better spent on improving safety around the side of the bus, where most fatalities occur. (See "The Danger Zone")
Belt advocates counter that while the current seat design may help protect kids in a frontal collision that jerks them directly into the seat in front of them, its of little use if the bus is hit from the side or rolls over. (Estimates of how effective seat belts are in these other crashes vary because, even with few belts in use, there are relatively few deaths or serious injuries inside school buses to study.) Advocates also argue that belt use in buses would boost their use in cars, where the mortality rate among unbuckled children remains high a big reason the American Medical Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and several other physician groups support mandating lap belts on newly purchased school buses.
Other advocates have argues for a three-point belt system similar to lap-shoulder belts in cars, which even some lap-belt opponents concede could improve school-bus safety. But the chances of such a system being installed are slim, as it would require a complete redesign of the buses and seats used today, which would make it very costly. Since both sides agree that a three-point system is not currently the most practical option, but manufacturers arent likely to commit such sizable resources without a mandate from Washington. And without widespread pressure from parents, the federal government is unlikely to push for change.
The latest controversy surrounding school-bus safety isnt about seat belts, but rather the large passenger vans that budget-pinched districts are increasingly using as alternatives to higher-priced school buses. Vans are also more attractive to some school systems because, unlike federally approved school buses, they can be driven by someone without a commercial license or special training, such as a coach or a teacher.
According to an often-ignored federal law, these vans, which do not conform to federal requirements for school buses (they generally dont have emergency exits, extra mirrors, flashing lights, or stop-arms, and dont meet structural standards), cannot be sold by dealers to schools to transport children. The mandate doesnt cover afterschool programs, daycare centers, or day camps, which also use these vans. To further complicate the issue, many states explicitly allow schools to use such vans, in direct contradiction to the federal ban on sales.
Since these vans are sometimes painted yellow or fitted with flashing lights or other features to resemble federally approved school buses, the best way to tell if your child is on a school bus that meets federal safety standards is to look for a certification sticker on the doorjamb or the header above the windshield (usually on the drivers side) that identifies it as a school bus. Vans that arent school buses will simply be labeled "bus" or will even explicitly warn "not a school bus." If youre not sure, ask the district official in charge of school transportation (your school should have his name).
Although vans are tougher in crashes than passenger cars like buses, theyre bigger, heavier, and sit higher off the ground theyre nowhere near as safe as a full-size or smaller-model school bus. Just ask Lisa Strebler. Her 6-year-old son, Jacob, was killed in 1994 when a tractor trailer ran a red light and smashed into the side of the van in which he and eight of his Columbia, South Carolina, private-school classmates were riding. Accident-reconstruction experts hired by Strebler say they found what Strebler suspected: Had Jacob been in a school bus, he probably wouldnt have died.
"His death was preventable," Strebler says. "Its didnt just happen because someone ran a red light. It happened because he was on a van when he should have been on a bus."
Strebler, who sued the trucking company, school, and van dealer and settled out of court, is using some of the settlement money to publicize her case against nonconforming passenger vans. Shes already had an impact: The NHTSA, which for years had done little to enforce the ban on sales of such vans to schools, has recently begun to fine dealers who break the law. (Schools arent technically liable since the mandate is written to make the sale, not use, of these vans illegal.) Strebler is urging parents to get involved. "If you know of a dealership selling vans to schools or of a van being used by a school, pick up the phone and call the NHTSAs auto-safety hot line at 800-424-9393," she says. "I want Jake to be the last child in America who dies in one of these vehicles."
Entrusting your child to a school bus isnt easy. But it helps to keep in mind that with or without seatbelts, school buses that meet federal regulations are still the safest way to transport children. And while the installation of seat belts on buses is certainly worth further consideration, parents should keep the matter in perspective with the other pressing issues that affect childrens safety, from drunks on our roads to the matches on the coffee tables to the guns in the closets. These dangers, which we can work individually to alleviate, pose a far greater threat to our children.
Our school bus fears usually focus on images of some horrible wreck. But children are most likely to get hurt during routine pickup and drop-off, when theyre in the "danger zone" the area inside a ten-foot radius around the bus, in which small children often become invisible to both the driver and approaching motorists. Its here that kids crossing the street are hit by motorists who illegally pass a stopped bus, or youngsters darting in front of, next to, behind, or even under the bus are inadvertently struck by their own driver.
Despite safety innovations, such as wider-angle mirrors and stop signs that automatically swing out from the drivers window when the bus door opens, the danger zone continues to claim childrens lives. Of 43 school bus-related child deaths in 1996, 15 occurred outside the bus.
Last February, Corey Mays, a kindergartner in Hickory, NC, was struck by his bus as his father watched in horror. The driver, who could neither see Corey in front of her bus nor hear the desperate shouts of onlookers over the roar of the engine and the noise on her bus, drove half a block before stopping. Corey never regained consciousness.
To prevent tragedies like this, engineers continue to invent new safety devices. Some of the equipment being tested now: motion detectors and radar devices that can sense the presence of a moving object close to the bus; cameras that monitor blind spots outside the bus; a mechanical ten-foot "crossing control are" mounted on the buss front bumper that prevents kids from crossing where the driver cant see them; and a newly designed flat-front bus with the engine moved to the back that allows the driver to see small children near the front bumper.
Wait for the bus on the sidewalk, not in the street.
While waiting, pay close attention and dont fool around with your friends. Wait until the bus has stopped and the door has opened before stepping off the curb. Always stay away from the wheels. Remember: Just because you can see the bus does not mean that the driver can see you.
While riding the bus, stay seated, face forward, keep the aisles clear, and keep your head and arms inside the vehicle. Always obey the drivers instructions.
Gather your belongings before you reach your school or stop. Use the handrail while exiting, and be careful of backpacks and other things that dangle.
When you get off, take five giant steps away from the bus, out of the danger zone.
Never run back to retrieve a forgotten item or to pick up something youve dropped near or under the bus.
Assure your child that you wont be upset if he doesnt retrieve a jacket or backpack left on the bus or schoolwork dropped under a wheel.
Remove or cut off loose drawstrings hanging from your childs clothing or coat. Check her backpack for any keychains and other dangling objects that might get caught in a door or handrail.
Make a point of meeting your childs bus driver. Ask about emergency evacuation procedure and whether theres a fire extinguisher on board. Make sure your child carries a "contact in case of emergency" card with information about allergies and medications. (Even if the driver knows that information, a substitute may not.)
Urge your school to set up bus-safety education classes for kids, including at least two education drills per year.
Consider organizing a local bus-safety program. In 1995, parents in Chappaqua, NY, working with their school district and bus company, fashioned a program that includes volunteer adult bus-stop monitors and year-round bus-safety education.
Arrive five minutes before the bus is supposed to get there. Many children are injured as they run to catch up with a moving school bus.
If your child has to meet the bus when it is dark or at dusk, have him wear bright or reflective clothing.