How Safe Is the School Bus?

By Sinovic, Dianna

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.

Popular Injuries and Wounds Slide Show