National Coalition For School Bus Safety
National Coalition For School Bus Safety
 

NATIONAL COALITION OF SCHOOL BUS SAFETY NEWS UP TO DEC. 2003

From Parenting Magazine, September 1998.
By David Ruben

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How Safe is Their School Bus?

The Seat-Belt Debate

The Van Threat

The Danger Zone

Safety Tips to Teach Your Kids

How to Help Protect Your Child

How Safe is Their School Bus?

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, you’ll 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. That’s 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 driver’s 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, isn’t, How safe are school buses compared with other modes of transportation? But, Can school buses themselves be safer? And the answer is yes.

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The Seat-Belt Debate

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 isn’t 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 he’s not donning a belt. His school bus, like most in the U.S., doesn’t 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 aren’t 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.

It’s 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, it’s 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 aren’t 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.

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The Van Threat

The latest controversy surrounding school-bus safety isn’t 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 don’t have emergency exits, extra mirrors, flashing lights, or stop-arms, and don’t meet structural standards), cannot be sold by dealers to schools to transport children. The mandate doesn’t 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 driver’s side) that identifies it as a school bus. Vans that aren’t school buses will simply be labeled "bus" or will even explicitly warn "not a school bus." If you’re 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, they’re bigger, heavier, and sit higher off the ground – they’re 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 wouldn’t have died.

"His death was preventable," Strebler says. "It’s didn’t 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. She’s 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 aren’t 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 NHTSA’s 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 isn’t 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 children’s 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.

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The Danger Zone

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 they’re 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. It’s 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 children’s 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 bus’s front bumper that prevents kids from crossing where the driver can’t 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.

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Safety Tips to Teach Your Kids

Wait for the bus on the sidewalk, not in the street.

While waiting, pay close attention and don’t 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 driver’s 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 you’ve dropped near or under the bus.

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How to Help Protect Your Child

Assure your child that you won’t be upset if he doesn’t retrieve a jacket or backpack left on the bus or schoolwork dropped under a wheel.

Remove or cut off loose drawstrings hanging from your child’s 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 child’s bus driver. Ask about emergency evacuation procedure and whether there’s 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.

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