Do you remember riding the bus to school as a child? Maybe your fond memory of riding the school bus is filled with fun, friendship, and independence. Or perhaps, riding the bus was a stressful event after being separated from your parents on the first day of school.

Whatever your school bus experience may be, one thing is for sure:

You probably weren't thinking about safety the first time you stepped foot on that big yellow bus

Before the iconic school bus made its way along quiet neighborhood streets to pick kids up for school, the first school bus was actually a horse drawn carriage. It was built in 1827 to carry up to 25 children to an all-girls Quaker school in northeast London.1

Monumental School Bus "Green Lights" in the Past 50 Years3

1950’s

The number of students that used school buses as public transportation exceeded 10 million in 1956.

1960’s

A new school bus design feature of eight identification lights was passed in New Jersey in 1962; school bus accidents dropped by 68%.

1970’s

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act promised equal opportunity transportation for special needs students in 1975.

1980’s

New York became the first state to require seat belts on school buses by law in 1986.

1990’s

New transportation regulations were introduced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to protect toddlers and preschoolers on school buses in 1998.

2000’s

President Bush included school bus drivers and school buses under "mass transportation systems" in the anti-terrorism legislation signed in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks.

Since that time, the school bus has evolved to become a major mode of public transportation

Many children rely on school buses exclusively to get safely to school if their parents don't own a vehicle or don't have time to drop them off before work in the morning.

In both the US and Canada, the school bus was built to stand out from all other modes of public transportation. School buses in North America are painted yellow-orange, otherwise known as National School Bus Chrome Yellow.

A full-size yellow school bus has the capacity to seat anywhere from 59 to 90 children - although smaller buses are often used by school districts for special purposes, such as charter schools or special education transportation.

The vibrant yellow design of the school bus

is intended to promote safety and visibility on-the-road when transporting the "precious cargo" of students.

The use of the school bus picked up speed after World War II

After the end of the second World War, both US and Canadian governments pushed to consolidate public schools into fewer locations with larger student bodies.

As a result, school bus demand grew to meet the transportation needs of numerous students in surrounding regions. On top of that, the baby boom increased the population further to require even more school bus transportation in large urban areas.

How much do you know about

the big yellow bus?

Here are several intriguing school bus statistics provided by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services:2

450,000 public school buses operate in the US each year.

24 million students are transported in school buses per year.

School bus travel averages 4 billion miles per year.

in/out a bus 20 b times

Out of the 10 billion annual student trips in school buses, a student will get on or off a bus 20 billion times each year.

Even though the simple yellow school bus may seem straightforward in its design, its functionality and safety features are well thought out.

After all, the fleet of school buses throughout the US is responsible for 24 million student lives. It's their primary job to ensure that all students arrive safely to school each day.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) under the US Department of Transportation has mandated 36 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for school buses that may regulate:

Rearview mirror
location

Warning light color and functionality

Number and operation of emergency exits

Fuel system crash performance requirements

Minimum school bus structural strength to withstand a rollover

School bus seating requirements

Wheelchair occupant and restraint device requirements

School bus pedestrian safety devices

Throughout the history of the school bus, safety has been a primary concern - and rightly so.

If you're wondering how the evolution of the school bus has influenced public transportation safety standards, we'll dig even deeper in the next section…

How Safe Is Your Child

on a School Bus?

You may have your reservations about sending off your little guy or gal on a public school bus for the first time. Riding the bus can be nerve-racking for both parents and students, especially when it comes to safety concerns.

And it certainly doesn't help when you read headlines in the news. Before you consider putting your child on a school bus, it's time to separate fact from fiction regarding school bus safety.

However, it is interesting to point out that according to NHTSA statistics, only five casualties are occupants of school buses. 14 casualties in school bus-related accidents are pedestrians.4

Pedestrians make up a much higher fatality rate In school transportation-related crashes amongst all age groups from 1998-2008 NHTSA statistics, as evidenced in the chart below.

The largest number of fatalities at 118 belonged to pedestrians over the age of 19.

Unfortunately, school-age pedestrians among the 5-7 age bracket accounted for 70 fatalities within 10 years.4

For this reason,

Some industry experts assert that it is actually safer for school children to ride on a school bus than walk to school; a significantly higher number of school-age pedestrians were killed in school bus crashes compared to school bus occupants.

Although these statistics may seem shocking and hard to hear, it helps to put them in perspective.

The most recent school transportation crash statistics provided by the NHTSA from 2001-2010 revealed that school bus accidents accounted for only 0.34% of all motor vehicle crash fatalities. From 2001-2010, there were only 137 fatalities in school bus-related crashes per year. 72% of crash victims were occupants of other vehicles; school bus occupants made up only 7% of fatalities.5

These findings further contribute to the assertion of the American School Bus Counsel that,

School buses are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in avoiding crashes and preventing injuries.

What a relief!

The American School Bus Counsel points to the following features that contribute to improved school bus safety:

Crash standards, size, and height

Flashing red lights

Well-trained and screened drivers

Cross-view mirrors

Reinforced sides

Bright color

Stop sign armsr

Yes, careful thought is put into selecting and training school bus drivers that are responsible for the safety and well-being of children en route to school.

The American School Bus Council confirms that school bus drivers are trained in student behavior management, loading and unloading, security measures, and emergency medical procedures. They also receive frequent driving record checks and participate in pre-employment and randomized drug and alcohol testing.

The NHTSA goes so far as to say that
students are almost 50 times more likely to arrive to school alive if they take the bus rather than riding with friends or driving themselves

student fatalities

annual average during normal school travel hours

fact

School buses are the safest mode of transportation for getting children back and forth to school

SOURCE: U.S Department of Transportation

Child Seat Belt Concerns

on a School Bus

Even with these affirmations in school bus safety, it still doesn't cover one important topic: Do children need to wear seat belts on school buses?

School buses are certainly designed with safety in mind, but it doesn't make them 100% accident-proof

Recent school bus crashes that have made headlines have left parents reeling. In 2012, a school bus carrying 50 students from ages 5 to 16 in Indianapolis hit a concrete bridge abutment on the way to school. The school bus was not equipped with seat belts. As a result of the crash, a five-year-old student and a 60-year-old bus driver were killed.6

In response to the crash, the NHTSA affirmed that,

We feel strongly that school buses continue to be the safest way to transport students… even safer than their parents’ cars.

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics "strongly disagrees." The AAP recommends seat belts as a requirement on school buses, with all public buses equipped with lap and shoulder belts to "ensure the safest possible ride."

While seat belts in passenger vehicles are governed by primary and secondary laws throughout the nation, the same legislation does not apply to school bus seat belts across-the-board. Just a handful of states, including California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey, and New York, have enacted seat belt laws for school bus transportation.

School buses continue to be considered generally safer than cars on the road, backed up by the many NHTSA statistics listed above. Even without seat belts, compartmentalization safety design features that affect spacing between seats, as well as seat back height, can keep children from being thrown in a crash.

Currently, only about 20% of school buses in the US offer seat belts for students.

However, compartmentalization may only be effective in a frontal crash.

Seat belts can provide greater protection in rear and side crashes.

Implementing school bus seat belts nationwide may have one unexpected benefit: behavior improvement

On school buses coast-to-coast, bullying has become a widespread epidemic

In a recent survey of bus drivers, school officials, and transportation directors

93%

of participants reported bullying on their buses

70%

of survey participants believed that 3-point harnesses had a positive behavioral impact

88%

of participants believed that 3-point harnesses reduced bullying.7

In addition to serving as a safety feature, seat belts keep kids in their seats on the bus. This dual-purpose restraint device can provide benefits to protect kids in a crash and to reduce distraction and aggressive behavior between students.

When it comes to the future forecast for seat belt use on school buses, 62% of transportation officials surveyed believe that the government will soon require all school buses to come with mandatory seat belts. 85% of parents agree and are pushing for lap-shoulder belts on all school buses.7

The NHTSA does encourage school bus drivers to take special safety precautions for child restraint among infants and toddlers.

School bus drivers can follow the NHTSA checklist when transporting infants and toddlers in school bus car seats.

Children up to one year and 20 pounds must ride in a rear facing infant seat.

Children over one year and 20 pounds can ride in a forward facing seat or booster with built-in harness; the same applies for children over 40 pounds.

Before transporting any infant or toddler in a school bus, a school bus driver must confirm that they are using the correct restraint system for the child's age and weight.

Young children in car seats must be securely buckled with seat belts and restrained with a tight fit.

Last but not least, drivers are required to call the NHTSA hotline regularly to check for possible car seat recalls.

School Bus Safety Etiquette

for Drivers

Beyond the school bus, other drivers on the road play a major role in school bus safety

The unfortunate truth is that many drivers don't know or don't remember how to drive correctly around a school bus. Any negligence or error in behavior could put children entering or exiting a bus in grave danger.

Here are a few important guidelines to remember when stopping for a school bus:

  • Drivers in the opposite lane on a roadway with a separate median barrier don't have to stop for a school bus.
  • In a four lane road without a separate median barrier, all traffic must stop for a school bus.
  • All traffic on a two lane road must stop for a school bus.

To make school bus stops user-family for the average driver, school buses are designed to function like traffic signals:

Flashing Yellow Overhead Lights

Indicate that a school bus is preparing to stop.

Flashing Red Overhead Lights

Indicate that a school bus is stopping/has stopped.

Open Stop Sign

Indicates that a school bus is stopping/has stopped.

Flashing Hazard Lights

Indicate to proceed with caution.

If you see a school bus slowing down with overhead yellow lights flashing, this is the perfect time to slow and prepare to stop. Drivers must stop a minimum of 20 feet away from a school bus when red lights are flashing, unless they are driving in the opposite flow of traffic on a separated median highway.

If you are driving in a school zone or residential neighborhood, cues to stop for a school bus are even more apparent. Many school bus stops are protected by crossing guards or safety patrols. A school bus stop may also be located in a populated suburban area, like in front of a community center or playground.

Any time you suspect children may be in the area, it is critical to slow to a stop for a school bus

A heavy burden for school bus safety is placed on the driver to regulate loading and unloading.

By law, a school bus driver is required to follow multiple loading guidelines, including but not limited to:

National School Bus Safety Week
is sponsored by

  • The National School Transportation Association
  • The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services
  • The National Association for Pupil Transportation
  • The Pupil Transportation Safety Institute
  • And school bus manufacturers and suppliers.

To promote school bus safety awareness,

National School Bus Safety Week is observed in the third week of October in multiple states throughout the US. This week is entirely devoted to school-related public transportation safety to educate drivers, students, and parents.

The awareness campaign encourages active community involvement and public education through activities like:

poster
contests

speech
contests

and local media
promotions*

*via newsletters, articles, and press releases
The safety education program is intended to make basic school bus safety principles common knowledge and highlight glaring issues in driver behavior

illegal passing of school buses

On March 2 Florida public school bus driver participated in a one-day survey. Drives documented how many motorists ellegally passed their buses while stopped for students to get on or off.

percentage of drivers who illegaly passed a school buses

34%

Duval Co.

700 out of 2,060

57%

Clay Co.

84 out of 147

73%

Nassau Co.

41 out of 56

81%

St. Johns Co.

29 out of 36

SOURCE: Florida Department of Education

For example…

Florida Department of Education statistics in 2012 confirmed that over 21,000 drivers illegally passed school buses in one day.8

This adds up to an estimated

3.7 million

illegal passes

in Florida throughout a 180 day school year.

Even a seemingly small traffic violation like illegally passing a school bus could result in serious injury or death for a school-age student. Improved driver and student awareness through National School Bus Safety Week is critical to put a stop to senseless school bus-related casualties.

If drivers and students can take one thing away from nationwide school bus safety awareness, it is to observe the School Bus Danger Zone. This danger zone is located 10 feet around the area of the school bus in the blind spot of the school bus driver.9

In the Danger Zone, a school bus driver can easily run over a student that hasn't moved out of the way after exiting the bus. Drivers on the road must also stay out of this Danger Zone to prevent an unnecessary school bus collision and to keep exiting students safe.

School Bus Safety Basics

for students

Preventable accidents can be avoided altogether when students do their part to observe school bus safety

Students of all ages are encouraged to follow basic safety guidelines when entering, riding on, or exiting a school bus:

Children should wear bright colors so that they are easily visible to the school bus driver.

Children should arrive to the bus stop on time so that they don't have to run to catch the bus.

Young children should be escorted to the bus stop; older children should walk in groups for better visibility.

Children should always walk on the sidewalk to the bus stop.

Children should wait at least 6 feet away from the road at the bus stop.

Children should stay at least 6 feet away from the bus before the driver opens the door.

Children should always make sure that the driver can see them before entering and after exiting the bus.

Children should wait for the driver to give the signal for them to cross the street after exiting the bus.

While riding, children must stay seated, talk quietly, and always follow driver directions.

Preserving school bus safety is a group effort between students, parents, and drivers.

Parents that participate in school bus safety can help to educate their children about the best way to enter, exit, and behave on a school bus. Even children that don't ride a school bus must understand basic school bus safety as pedestrians or cyclists that may encounter a school bus on the way to school. Children that ride a bicycle or walk to school still need to observe the School Bus Danger Zone to stay out of hazardous blind spots to the driver.

Parents as partners in school bus safety can protect kids from unnecessary accidents with the following tips:

Help your child put all of their belongings in their backpack so that they don't drop anything on the way to the bus stop or when entering/exiting the bus.

Buy your child a reflective jacket or reflective patches for their backpack to improve visibility on the way to the bus stop.

Teach your child about good pedestrian behavior to walk safely on the sidewalk and stay off the street.

Teach your child how to cross streets by looking left and right and waiting for the light to change.

Warn your child never to play games near traffic or in the School Bus Danger Zone.

Though school bus accident statistics are heartbreaking

To say the least, riding the bus to school can be a safe, pleasant experience for any child. Kids that understand how to behave on and around a school bus can greatly reduce their risk of an unforeseen accident. As a parent, you can rest assured that your child is riding safe and sound to school each day by observing the basics of school bus safety.

To teach your kids the importance of school bus safety, the 2013 National School Bus Safety Week slogan says it all:

Stand Back from the Yellow and Black!

Sources:

  1. "Stoke Newington Quaker Meeting - Early History." Stoke Newington Quaker Meeting.
  2. "History of School Bus Safety." www.nasdpts.org.
  3. "Decade by Decade: 50 Years of Pupil Transportation History - Article - School Bus Fleet." School Bus Fleet - Pupil Transportation Industry News.
  4. "School Transportation-Related Crashes." www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov.
  5. "NHTSA updates school transportation crash stats - News - School Bus Fleet." School Bus Fleet - Pupil Transportation Industry News.
  1. "School Bus Crashes Raise Concerns About Seat Belts and Safety - ABC News." ABCNews.com - Breaking News, Latest News & Top Video News - ABC News.
  2. "Seat Belts Improve Behavior." fbcdn-sphotos-a-a.akamaihd.net.
  3. "DHSMV: Stop on Red, Kids Ahead." DHSMV: Stop on Red, Kids Ahead.
  4. "School Bus Safety Web." NC School Bus Safety Web.
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