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How Safe Is the School Bus?

When you get in your car, you buckle up for safety, and if you're a parent, you make sure your children are buckled up, as well.

But if you're a parent, do you wonder about your children as they board the big yellow school bus in the morning? How safe are they aboard that big bus, particularly if the bus—like most—has no seat belts for its passengers?

During the school year, 23.5 million elementary and secondary school children ride a bus to and from school each day, according to School Transportation News. Add in extracurricular activities, and the school bus system becomes the single largest public transit system in our country.

Like any form of vehicular transportation, accidents involving school buses are inevitable. Each year, about 17,000 children are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries associated with school buses. Children can be injured when riding the bus, getting on or off the bus, or standing near the bus.

More than 40 percent of school bus injuries are caused by vehicular accidents, according to a 2006 report by the Center for Innovation in Pediatric Practice (CIPP) in Columbus, Ohio. Yet, thanks to bus design, most of those injuries are considered minor, causing sprains, strains, scrapes or bruises, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Safety around the bus

About 24 percent of injuries involve getting on or off the school bus, according to the CIPP report. Although an average of seven school-age passengers are killed in school bus crashes each year, 19 are killed getting on and off the bus, according to School Transportation News.

Most of those killed are 5 to 7 years old. They are hit in the "danger zone" around the bus. This is the area 10 feet in front of the bus, 10 feet behind it and 10 feet to either side of it. The children are struck either by the school bus itself or by a passing vehicle, even though it is illegal for a vehicle to pass a bus with its red light flashing.

More school-age pedestrians are killed in the afternoon than in the morning, with 38 percent of the fatalities occurring in crashes between 3 and 4 p.m.

To better protect children, many bus companies have added a mechanical arm that forces a child to stay a certain distance from a bus. And some school districts have mounted cameras on their buses to record motorists who fail to stop for a school bus.

Parents, too, can do a lot to help prevent accidents near the school bus. They can keep an eye on children waiting for the bus or departing the bus. And they can teach them several simple rules to keep them safe. Children should stay 10 feet away from the bus, or as far away as they can, and never walk behind it. They should take five giant steps in front of the bus before crossing, so they can be seen by the driver.

Onboard safety

Some people advocate that large buses—those weighing more than 10,000 pounds—have seat belts to keep children safe. Many experts point out, however, that the seats in large buses are now constructed in a way that seat belts are not needed. The idea is called "compartmentalization." Seat "compartments" are designed to absorb the force in a crash, protecting the children, School Transportation News says. New bus seats are higher, wider and thicker, and all metal surfaces are covered with padding—all of which absorb energy in a crash. The seat structure allows it to bend forward when a child is thrown against it. Seats are also positioned no more than two feet apart, which limits the distance a child moves during a crash.

Compartmentalization provides protection in a head-on or rear-end collision, but some experts argue that children can still be tossed side to side during an accident, causing injuries and even death, School Transportation News says. When a bus rolls over, for instance, the most common injuries are usually to the head, neck and shoulders. One solution suggested would put extra padding along the sides of the bus interior—over the windows and on the paneling between windows.

There are several drawbacks to seat belts on large buses. They are effective only if they are used, School Transportation News says. On a bus that transports many children, it is difficult to enforce the use of seat belts. Even when in use, they require a lot of maintenance—to adjust them from child to child, to keep them in good working order and to keep them clean. Also, children younger than 8 years old need a chest harness instead of a lap belt.

In 2005, California began requiring that all school buses built new and operating in California have three-point safety belts. A three-point belt is attached to the seat on each side of the hips and also has a shoulder harness.

Smaller buses—those that weigh less than 10,000 pounds—are required by federal law to have three-point lap/shoulder seat belts. That's because federal government views smaller buses as similar to automobiles or light trucks, and federal law requires those vehicles to have seat belts. Not all states, however, mandate their use.

One important safety step that many school districts overlook is an evacuation drill for all students who ride school buses, the National Transportation Safety Board says. The board recommends a twice-yearly drill to review where emergency exits are and how to open them. A drill or safety briefing is also important for extracurricular trips, which may involve students who don't ride a bus regularly and may not be familiar with the safety features.

Safety tips for children

The NHTSA offers these tips for children who ride a school bus:

  • Try to get to your bus stop at least 5 minutes before your bus is supposed to arrive. When the bus approaches, stand at least three giant steps—6 feet—away from the curb. Line up away from the street.

  • Line up facing the school bus door—not along the side of the school bus.

  • Don't play in the street while waiting for the school bus.

  • Don't approach the bus until the bus has stopped, the door has opened, and the driver says you can get on the bus.

  • If you have to cross the street in front of the bus, always walk on the sidewalk or along the side of the street until you are at least five giant steps— 10 feet—ahead of the bus. Then you can cross.

  • Before you cross, make sure the bus driver can see you, and you can see the bus driver. Wait for a signal from the bus driver before you cross the street.

  • When you climb the steps onto the bus, hold onto the handrails.

  • When you get off the bus, make sure that your clothing or book bags don't get caught on the handrails or the doors.

  • Never walk or cross the street behind the bus.

  • If you need to walk beside a bus, always stay three giant steps—6 feet—away from the side of the bus.

  • If you drop something near the bus, tell the bus driver. Never try to pick up what you've dropped. The bus driver might not be able to see you.

Safety tips for drivers

Here are safety tips from the NHTSA for drivers who travel through areas that have school children present:

  • When you back out of your driveway or leave your garage, be on the alert for children who are walking or bicycling to school.

  • When you drive through an area marked with school zones, watch out for children who are walking or bicycling to school. They may be thinking more about school than traveling there safely.

  • Whenever children may be in the area, slow down. Be on the alert for children walking in the street, particularly in neighborhoods that have no sidewalks.

  • Watch for children who may be waiting or playing near a bus stop.

  • Watch for children who may be hurrying to catch a bus, and who may dart out into the street without checking for traffic.

  • Pay attention to the flashing lights on the bus, and stop when the lights are red and the STOP arm is extended.

Safety tips for parents

The National School Transportation Association offers these tips for parents whose children ride the bus:

  • Have at least one adult present at the bus stop to supervise the children.

  • Let your children know that you won't be upset if they don't run back to the bus to pick up a jacket they left on a seat or grab school work that they accidentally dropped near the bus.

  • Encourage your children to sit quietly on the bus and listen to any instructions given by the driver.