Considering the fact that every school day over 22 million children ride the familiar yellow school bus back and forth to school and school related activities and additional millions are take these vehicles to camp, church, athletic and youth events, data regarding injuries and fatalities are poorly maintained, inaccurate and misleading.
About twenty-five years ago, when I first became interested in school bus safety, my home state of New Jersey reported fewer than 20 children were injured in school bus accidents for an entire year. However I was aware of a single accident during that school year that had injured 45 children. When I questioned why those injuries were not included, the State Director explained that the bus was on a field trip to a museum in New York and field trip injuries were not included in the statistics. When asked if a bus accident near my office that took 6 children to the hospital was included the answer was also no because the children were on their way home from a Parochial School, and only Public School children were counted.
Of greater significance, when the Los Angeles Consolidated School District did a study to determine if seat belts would be of value, they reported only 5 fatalities while ignoring a school bus accident the killed 29 in Martinez, CA. during the ten-year period studied. The reason, the Martinez bus was on a field trip, taking a school choir to a concert and that didn’t count. I a like manner, in 1988 the 24 who died on a Church trip when a drunk driver hit their school bus head on in Carrollton, KY were not counted as school bus fatalities.
The obvious result of the omission of fatality and injury data is to make the school bus vehicle and school bus operations appear to be far much safer than they are in fact. As a direct result, school and bus officials are easily able to allay the legitimate concerns of parents for the safety of their children.
With this in mind some analysis of the latest information from the National Highway Traffic safety Administration is in order. (See NHTSA 2002 Report to Congress at
At the bottom of page 4 NHTSA states, “On average, over the past 11 years, school buses have been involved in over 26,000 crashes, resulting in less than 1,000 incapacitating injuries and slightly more than 7,000 non-incapacitating injuries and possible injuries to passengers.” The details are found in Table 3 on page six.
Closer examination reveals that according to NHTSA, during the 11-year period over half of the incapacitating injuries happened in 1992. In fact, that year, 1992, they report that there were more incapacitating injuries than non-incapacitating or possible injuries. At the same time Table 2 indicates that school bus fatalities were below average for 1992. There is obviously something very wrong with NHTSA’s numbers.
To make matters worse in Table 6 on page 9 most of these 1992 injuries (5793 out of 5880) are listed as resulting from frontal impacts. Then the following 4 years indicate no incapacitating injuries at all from frontal crashes. The obvious egregious error could easily be dismissed as a printer’s typo, however NHTSA seems to blithely accept the idiosyncrasy by stating on page 8, “There has been a wide variation in the number of injured persons in frontal crashes, with the estimate ranging from 0 for years 1993 through 1996 to nearly 6,000 in 1992.”
Inclusion of such material in a Report to Congress is an unmitigated disgrace coming from the responsible Federal Agency.
Table 6 on page 8 details average annual Fatalities by Principal Impact Point for the 11-year period. They report that the average number of front end, side and non-collision (typically roll over) and rear end crashes is 66. Of these 28 fatalities or 42% of the total are from side impact or non-collision (typically rollover) accidents. It is for this 42% of fatal accidents that seat belts have their greatest life saving potential.
Since 1977 NHTSA has relied on “compartmentalization” between high back padded seats to provide passenger restraint during school bus crashes. This faith was shattered on September 21, 1999 when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported a special investigation of bus crashworthiness and concluded that:
The Board went on to point out that these passengers who were propelled from the compartment during collisions were more likely to be injured.