Every year, more than 25 million children are transported to and from school in the United States. Annually, school buses transport students 5.7 billion miles (National Council of State Legislatures). The strongest environmental benefit to school buses is that each school bus replaces 36 cars, with a concurrent effect on emissions and traffic.
Most importantly, however, school buses are by far safer than traveling by car. According to the National Highway Transport Safety Administration (NHTSA) students are 70 times more likely to make it to school and back safely when traveling by bus compared with normal passenger vehicles.
This is due to a combination of the design of the bus, as well as legislation pertaining to other drivers’ behavior around buses.
How are buses designed?
One of the primary reasons for school buses’ high levels of safety is that they are engineered to be as secure as possible. Unlike other vehicles, which have aesthetic or other primary functions, school buses have safety as their exclusive function.
Constant innovations, combined with strict state and federal legislation have made them some of the safest vehicles on the road.
School Bus Safety Across the U.S.
- Allows stop-arm cameras
- Both laws in place
- Requires seat belts on large school buses
Source: National Council of State Legislatures
How do drivers ensure school bus safety?
One of the biggest safety issues for students catching a bus is the manner in which they leave it. Younger children are liable to not understand the rules of the road, potentially putting them at risk. Most school-age pedestrians are killed in the hour immediately before school and the hour immediately after.
As a result, school buses have a number of safety features deliberately designed to keep children safe while getting off the bus and crossing the road.
Flashing red lights
One of the most obvious safety features of the school bus is the flashing red lights when the bus stops. This helps to alert other drivers of the potential presence of young students crossing the road. These visual signals are almost impossible to ignore, particularly when combined with the bright yellow of the school bus.
School buses are equipped with extensive mirrors. With students getting off and often immediately crossing in front of the bus, the prevalence of mirrors means that school buses have no blind spots.
Stop-sign arms are the hydraulic stop signs that emerge from the side of the school bus when it is at a stop. These also contain flashing lights and often extend into the next lane of traffic. The movement of the signs, as well as their lateral extension, mean that drivers are compelled to take notice, thus protecting students from cars when alighting.
One of the biggest innovations for protecting students has been the introduction of laws making it illegal for drivers in either direction to pass school buses. When combined with the stop-sign arms and the flashing lights, this gives students a safe environment to disembark.
Since children are the least likely to obey the rules of the road, thereby putting themselves in danger, this legislation allows them to cross the road with less risk. Every state has a compulsory red light stop around school buses. Several states also have cameras in the stop arm to photograph drivers that do not follow the rules (see image, above).
How do drivers ensure safety on the bus?
As well as when moving outside the bus, students are also protected when the bus is moving. Buses are designed to handle external impact as well as to be protected from dangers like rolling.
The structure of the school bus is extremely important in providing high levels of safety standards. They are rigorously tested in simulated conditions to see how they respond to collisions at different angles. School buses have extremely high crush standards, meaning that their exterior is rigid and can withstand high levels of impact.
In addition, they also have rollover protection features. Because of the shape of a school bus, there is a slight vulnerability towards rolling when compared with lower vehicles. However, their structure is reinforced against damage when rolling with a rigid shell.
One of the most notable aspects of school bus safety (and one of the most intuitively jarring when thinking about safety) is the fact that students are often not provided with seat belts.
While some states (such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York) require shoulder belts in all school buses, the majority of states do not mandate the provision of belts in buses that weigh more than 10,000 lbs.
Large buses are deliberately built not to require seat belts, instead building impact protection into the seat backs. This means that in a collision, the students’ forward momentum is safely absorbed by the seat back in front, and therefore there is little need for seat belts.
In addition, the way that school buses are structurally designed means that much of a front-on impact is absorbed by crush zones in the immediate front of the bus. Additionally, because of the dispersal of forces in a large vehicle, crashes are less likely to cause a major jarring impact on passengers than a comparable impact in a car.
What ways can we ensure school bus safety?
Along with the structural and legislative protections around school buses, there is also a great deal of education around school bus safety.
However, there is always the capacity for further improvement, so the NHTSA recommends the following to help students (and parents) stay as safe as possible when dealing with school buses. For parents, going through these rules with your student will teach them how they can be as safe as possible.
How can we ensure safety while getting on the bus?
One of the most dangerous parts of the process of going to school is when children are waiting for and getting on the bus (hence the statistic about the most common school-age deaths being the hour either side of school). NHTSA recommends the following advice.
Get to the bus stop early
While often easier in theory than in practice, avoiding the last-minute dash to the bus stop will make it less likely that a student has to take risks (such as running across a road) to get to the bus stop on time. Getting there 5-10 minutes before the bus is due to depart will prevent any unsafe rushing.
Stand six feet from the curb
Teach students to stand three big paces (six feet) from the curb. This keeps them a safe distance away from the traffic. Particularly since young students tend to have less spatial awareness. Teach your child to imagine a red line running on the curb at this distance that they should always stay behind, and you will greatly reduce the chance of them running or falling into the road.
This rule connects with the above. Of course, children’s natural tendency will be to play while they are waiting for the bus. However, boisterous play so close to a road can be extremely dangerous, and result in a violation of the six feet rule.
Wait until the bus is stopped
When the bus eventually does arrive, students should wait until it has come to a complete stop before ‘breaking’ the six-foot rule. Drivers sometimes have to maneuver to get into space, so teaching your students to wait until the door is open and the driver gives them the all-clear is the safest course of action. Students should also use the handrail when boarding for added safety.
What about safety on the bus?
Although school buses are extremely safe, there are added steps you can follow to make sure that your student maximizes their safety. Again, go through the following list with your child. Establish a set of ‘good behavior rules’ with your child, letting them know what is expected of them when on the school bus, and why.
If you are on a smaller school bus or live in a state that has belts on larger buses, you should always use it. Drivers often can’t enforce this rule but seat belts (if present) provide huge safety benefits. If seat belts are present, then it is the law that students must wear them.
Don’t distract the driver
Bus drivers need to be focused on the road at all times, so distracting them can be extremely dangerous. Behavior such as sudden loud noises or anything that provides a visual distraction is highly dangerous. A driver that has to focus on what’s taking place inside the bus is not able to be as safe as possible.
Stay in your seat
Related to the first two points, students should stay in their seat at all times on the bus. When it is time to get off, wait until the bus has come to a complete stop before getting up from your seat. You can collect your items together in advance of the bus stopping, as long as you can do so without leaving your seat.
Moving buses can lurch suddenly, and it can be difficult to keep balance when buses slow down. This could not only cause injury for students, but also create a distraction for the driver.
Don’t put anything out the window
This is one of the most important safety rules for students on school buses. First and foremost, students should avoid putting any body parts out of the window. This is dangerous as a body part out the window can strike external objects. In addition, throwing objects out of the window can distract other drivers and cause accidents on the road.
Keep aisles clear
In case of emergencies, students need to evacuate the bus as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The aisles, therefore, need to remain clear of bags and other debris. Students should, as a result, keep the aisles clear where possible.
Can being a safe driver keep school buses safe?
As a driver around a school bus, there are added steps you can take to ensure students stay safe. Obeying the law is a necessary minimum, although you can also observe additional safety standards to protect students.
Be aware of school zones
As a driver around a school bus, there are added steps you can take to ensure students stay safe. Obeying the law is a necessary minimum, although you can also observe additional safety standards to protect students. Be sure to be mindful of the speed limit.
Watch out for students when backing out of a driveway
Students are most likely to be on the sidewalk during the same time as you are traveling to work. If you live close to a school, or any area where young people are walking, be extra careful when backing out of your drive. Remember that students often have far less road sense than adults!
Obey the lights
You should always obey the lights and regulations pertaining to school buses (and school zones). Even if you can’t see any students, or assume that it is safe, students can be moving around (often bolting across the road).
Students and bus drivers rely on people obeying the signals, so breaking these rules put lives at risk, whatever your reason for doing so.
School buses are one of the safest places that a student can be. They follow rigorous testing and constant improvement to be as safe as possible. Drivers also undergo high levels of training in order to be best prepared for every eventuality and to maximize safety at every step of the process.
As a parent, you can help your students be even safer by teaching them the correct way to behave while getting on and off the bus (as well as general road safety). In addition, as drivers, there are very clear steps to take to make sure that you remain safe around school buses. The key thing to remember is that students don’t always act rationally or obey the laws of the road.
With all parties working together, it’s possible to build on school bus safety to make getting to and from school the safest experience possible.