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Child Safety: School Bus Still Best

Experts weigh the merits of changing safety standards of school buses.
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WebMD Feature

Taking a bus to school is the safest way to go, statistics show. But accidents sometimes happen, and children may face other hazards on a bus besides the risk of being hurt in a crash. When it comes to getting kids safely to and from school, there's always room for improvement.

"The safety record of school transportation is just about untouched by any other mode," Eric Bolton, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), tells WebMD.

Every year school buses carry some 24 million students and collectively travel more than 4 billion miles. Considering how many kids the buses carry and the distance they cover, deaths on the road are extremely rare. School buses have a rate of 0.2 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. The rate of deaths in automobiles is eight times higher.

That's how safety officials like to put it, because it's a statistically accurate way of comparing risks. Here's another way to look at it: Over a span of 11 years, from 1994-2004, a total of 71 passengers on school buses died in crashes. In the year 2004 alone, traffic accidents killed 31,693 people traveling in cars and light trucks.

No matter how impressive statistics involving millions of kids and billions of miles are, they tend to pale when we hear the name of a single child who has come to harm, especially when that harm could have been prevented.

Seat Belts on the Bus

By law, kids on bikes must wear helmets, and in cars kids must be secured in an approved safety restraint at all times. So it may be a surprise to learn that federal law does not require seat belts on most school buses.

Every so often, a school bus accident makes national headlines and inflames the long-running controversy over making seat belts mandatory.

Some school buses are equipped with seat belts. The states of New York, New Jersey, and Florida have their own laws requiring lap belts on all school buses, but not belts that go over the shoulder and lap -- or "three-point restraints" in safety lingo -- like cars have. Individual school districts elsewhere may choose to have seatbelts on their buses as they see fit.

All small buses in the U.S. are required to have lap belts, too. These bus types are built on van bodies. The conventional big, yellow school bus, however, is designed to meet a different federal safety standard.

Using Seats for Safety

A key safety concept in full-sized school buses is called "compartmentalization." The thickly padded bench seats are spaced close together and have high backs, creating a compartment that protects passengers in a collision.

The NHTSA contends that compartmentalization alone is adequate crash protection, and that to mandate seat belts in addition would be messing with success. Seat belts, officials say, limit the number of kids who can squeeze into a bus seat. That might mean some schools would have to buy more buses, or else tell kids to find another way to school. "You're going to require that these displaced students use much riskier transportation modes," Bolton says, referring to the relatively low rate of deaths in school bus crashes.

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