Wednesday, February 17, 2016

School Bus Safety

Buses are the safest way for children to get to and from school. By far. School buses are larger, slower and more visible than passenger vehicles. They are statistically less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than any other form of transport to and from school. On average, just 6 children die in accidents on school buses each year. In contrast, 450 children die each year being transported to and from school in personal vehicles. Does that mean we shouldn't try to improve bus safety? Of course not.

School buses do not have seat belts to restrain passengers. Instead they rely on something called compartmentalization. Basically, this means that the high padded backs of the bus seats act like an egg carton to keep kids in their seats. In a front end collision, passengers are thrown forward into the seat back in front of them and rebound back into their original positions. Compartmentalization does keep passengers in their seats, more or less, but it does have several important limitations.

1) Children must be at least 50 lbs to benefit from compartmentalization. Head Start students and preschool aged children are not large enough to rebound back into their seats and end up slipping between the seats, winding up underneath them. This increases injuries.

2) Compartmentalization only works if children are in a forward facing seated position. From my own days on the bus, this was the exception, not the rule. Children lean over seat backs to talk to their friends, lay down sideways in the seats and stand up and move about until the bus driver yells at them to sit back down. All of these actions increase injuries.

3)  Compartmentalization does not work on small buses (less than 10,000 lbs). NHTSA requires that small buses be equipped with seat belts. Before October 2011, they required only lap belts. Since that date, they require full lap/ shoulder belts in all seating positions. Lap only belts allow too much forward motion and cause an additional injury called Seat Belt Syndrome. Lap/ shoulder belts reduce this. Buses under 10,000 lbs are subject to all relevant child passenger safety laws. In Ohio, that means that children under 4 must ride in a harnessed car seat and children under 8 must ride in an appropriate booster seat. If the small bus has lap only belts, it is not able to be used with booster seats.

4) Compartmentalization is not suitable for children who are medically fragile. Compartmentalization is a rather violent form of retaining passengers in their seats. Children are slammed into the seat back in front of them. This can cause many non-life threatening injuries such as broken noses, chipped teeth, bruising, etc. Children who are medically fragile are far more likely to be injured using this system.

This is what compartmentalization looks like:

5) Compartmentalization does not work in a roll over crash. In a roll over, children riding unrestrained on buses will not remain in position. This has a high rate of injury.

Compartmentalization was introduced on buses as a means to keep passengers in their seats in 1977. This is 40 year old technology. The way we use buses today has changed a lot in 40 years. Children are bused younger, further, faster and with a lot more cargo (backpacks, musical instruments, etc) than they were in the 1970's. Buses are frequently used to travel to sporting events and field trips across the state, requiring highway speeds and much greater risks. Children wearing heavy backpacks in their seats cause them to be pushed into the seat back in front of them with a much greater force than one without and can increase neck and spine injuries. Young children are being bused to preschool and Head Start programs and they are not protected by compartmentalization. These are all good reasons to improve our school bus restraint systems.

On November 8, 2015, NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind, Ph.D said:
"NHTSA has not always spoken with a clear voice on the issue of seat belts on school buses. So let me clear up any ambiguity now: The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives. That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus. And saving lives is what we are about. So NHTSA’s policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt. NHTSA will seek to use all the tools at our disposal to help achieve that goal, and today I want to launch a nationwide effort to get us there."

This is great news! Unfortunately we are a long way off from every child having a three-point belt on their school bus. So what should you, as a parent, do to make sure your child is traveling as safely as possible on the school bus in the meantime?

1) If you have a preschool age child, your child should be transported in a bus with either built in harnesses or in a child restraint system designed to be used on the bus.
Integrated harnessed seats

STAR seat system installed with CAM wraps

Alternatively, if the bus used by the preschool is a small bus (less than 10,000 lbs) it will be equipped with seat belts that you can install a regular harnessed car seat with. Do not allow children to ride in a bus equipped with only lap belts unless they are being used to install harnessed car seats. Booster seats are not allowed to be used. Small buses and large (12-15 passenger) vans are subject to all regular child passenger safety laws.

2) Teach your child about the importance of sitting in a forward facing position and staying seated on the bus.

3) Teach your child to remove their backpack and place it on the floor when they sit down.

4) Don't forget that school bus safety is about more than just what happens inside the bus. Make sure your kids know how to enter and exit the bus safely. More kids die as a result of being struck as a pedestrian outside the bus than in accidents while in the bus. Children should learn these basic safety rules:

  • Stay at least 10 feet away from a bus until it's time to get on. Then wait your turn and get on one at a time.
  • Before stepping off the bus, look to be sure a car isn't coming.
  • Don't linger or play near the bus after you leave it.
  • Take 5 giant steps out in front of the bus before you cross the street. Be sure the driver sees you and signals that it's OK to cross in front of the bus.
  • Make sure all cars on the road are stopped before crossing the street. 
Sending your child off on the bus for the first time can be scary. Please remember that even though school buses do not have seat belts, they are safer than you driving your child to school everyday. Educate your kids on how to stay safe on and off the bus. Together, we can make buses even safer!