School Bus Accidents Kill and Injure Children: Should There Be More Safety Requirements for Kids in School Buses?

School Bus Accidents Kill and Injure Children: Should There Be More Safety Requirements for Kids in School Buses?

This week, here in Indianapolis we are still in shock and sadness over the news story from March 12, 2012, where an Indianapolis school bus crashed into an overpass pillar killing both the driver and a five year old child with a little boy leaving the scene in critical condition.

However, the national media coverage has fallen back in the news coverage of the Indianapolis school bus crash to yesterday’s tragic Florida school bus crash as a nine year boy died and five others left the scene in critical condition yesterday after the Florida bus driver turned the bus directly into the path of a semi big-rig truck that was carrying a load of sod.  Florida Highway Patrol officials have cleared the truck driver of wrongdoing.

Elsewhere yesterday, there was also a New Jersey school bus crash where a car slammed into a Vineyand school bus as the bus sat at an intersection.  Fortunately, no child died in this crash and another one in Ohio, where an Ohio school bus crash happened yesterday in a similar accident as a Honda Accord collided with the school bus, wedging itself under the bus’ gas tank.  Again, while some children (and the bus driver) were injured, no one died in the Ohio bus accident.

If you’re counting, that’s four school bus crashes making the national news in two weeks’ time – and that’s not all of them.  Surf for yourself, and you’ll read about school bus accidents happening all over this country.

Do School Buses Need More Safety Features for Kids?

Sure, school buses have to pass inspections and bus drivers have to have proper licenses.  However, is that enough?  Right now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) takes the position that the interior of school buses provides a safe environment for children (and drivers) because they have special lights, they have reinforced sides, and they are painted bright colors.  The federal agency also opines that school buses are the safest way to get kids to and from school.

What about seat belts?  The NHTSA gives the following answer to the question of why aren’t there seat belts on school buses as follows:

Seat belts have been required on passenger cars since 1968. Forty-nine States and the District of Columbia have enacted laws requiring the wearing of seat belts in passenger cars and light trucks. There is no question that seat belts play an important role in keeping occupants safe in theses vehicles, however school buses are different by design and use a different kind of safety restraint system that works extremely well.

Large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than do passenger cars and light trucks. Because of these differences, the crash forces experienced by occupants of buses are much less than that experienced by occupants of passenger cars, light trucks or vans. NHTSA decided that the best way to provide crash protection to passengers of large school buses is through a concept called “compartmentalization.” This requires that the interior of large buses provide occupant protection such that children are protected without the need to buckle-up. Through compartmentalization, occupant crash protection is provided by a protective envelope consisting of strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs.

Small school buses (with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less) must be equipped with lap and/or lap/shoulder belts at all designated seating positions. Since the sizes and weights of small school buses are closer to those of passenger cars and trucks, seat belts in those vehicles are necessary to provide occupant protection.

School bus crash data show that compartmentalization has been effective at protecting school bus passengers. NHTSA’s 2002 Report to Congress[1] found that the addition of lap belts did not improve occupant protection for the severe frontal impacts that were studied for that report.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) have come to similar conclusions. The NTSB concluded in a 1987 study of school bus crashes that most fatalities and injuries occurred because the occupant seating positions were in direct line with the crash forces.[2 NTSB stated that seat belts would not have prevented most of the serious injuries and fatalities from occurring in school bus crashes. In 1989, the NAS completed a study of ways to improve school bus safety and concluded that the overall potential benefits of requiring seat belts on large school buses were insufficient to justify a Federal mandate for installation.[3] NAS also stated that the funds used to purchase and maintain seat belts might be better spent on other school bus safety programs and devices that could save more lives and reduce more injuries.

Not everyone agrees with this.  You may not.  And the American Academy of Pediatrics does not, either. There’s even a national organization that is pushing for better school bus safety, including the use of safety belts in school buses, the National Coalition for School Bus Safety.

Here’s the thing.  Maybe the real question isn’t whether school buses need to be safer but instead who is going to pay for the seat belts and other safety features.  Because right now, children are being injured and killed on school buses in this country and parents are being faced with not only this crisis and tragedy but the fight for justice in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.   For some, it may be seen as financially savvy to balance those injury claims against the cost of implementing statewide safety features.

Children are at risk.  Be careful out there.

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