Last week, 19 middle school students in suburban Howard County, Md., boarded a bus heading for home as they do every school day. Minutes into the ride the bus began shaking, then veered toward the right, passengers reported. The bus then left the road and rolled onto its side. Students climbed out of the roof and back exits to safety. Six were taken to area hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries, and the bus driver was uninjured, according to local news reports.
Every time a school bus accident occurs, it raises the question: How safe are the ubiquitious yellow buses that carry tens of millions of schoolchildren every day?
“School buses are the safest form of transportation to get to and from school,” said Kristin Poland, the deputy director of the National Transportation Safety Board Office of Highway Safety. “But we know that school buses can be even safer.”
Here’s a glance at some of the features that make school buses safer than other motor vehicles, as well as a safety feature that’s missing from many of the nation’s school buses, and why.
School buses’ built-in safety features
In 2022 alone, an estimated 42,795 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Among the 40,000-plus people who die in vehicular crashes annually, just five or six of them involve school bus passengers, said Poland.
Several features make school buses safer than other vehicles, she explained. Perhaps the most obvious is their size, which gives them an advantage upon impact with a smaller vehicle. Buses’ bright yellow color also makes them more visible in all sorts of weather. Their seats are constructed using principles of compartmentalization, which means children ride in a cocoon or compartment surrounded by an energy-absorbing, passive occupant protection system. The steel inner structure absorbs the energy and the high, padded seat backs remain secured to the school bus floor in the event of a collision. This compartmentalization technology protects students similarly to eggs in a carton, Poland explained. Additionally, school bus construction must meet federal safety standards involving the strength of their roofs and side rails.
Seat belts make buses even safer, but few have them
Poland said that wearing a seat belt—in particular, a shoulder-lap seat belt—could lessen injuries or, in some instances, save lives. This is especially relevant when a crash, like the one in Maryland last week, involves a side impact or rollover that increases the chance of a passenger being ejected from a seat, she said. The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended repeatedly that manufacturing of new large school buses require lap and shoulder belts for all passenger seating positions. But to date, no federal standards mandate them. However, federal legislation has for several years required new smaller school buses weighing 10,000 pounds or less to have shoulder-lap seat belts.
The majority of states also don’t require large school buses to have seat belts. As of September 2022, only eight states had laws mandating seat belt installation on school buses; one, Iowa, legislated in 2019 that all new school buses require shoulder-lap belts. In most instances, a crash preceded the push for legislation, Poland said.
Some lawmakers continue to resist mandating shoulder-lap seat belts
Last August, in Ohio’s Clark County, a student was killed and dozens of others injured when a school bus overturned after a crash with a minivan. Subsequently, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine convened a working group to study the problem and make school bus safety recommendations. Andy Wilson, the director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, headed up the committee and announced the group’s recommendations on Jan. 31.
The recommendations included developing a uniform bus driver training curriculum and adding safety features to buses such as external school bus cameras, crossing arms, lane departure warning systems, seat belts, and more. The committee did not recommend mandatory addition of seat belts.
“After hearing from the experts, hearing from our bus drivers, looking at the data or lack of data, from states that have mandated seat belts and listening to districts who have piloted seat belts on their buses, we became convinced that a statewide mandate of seat belts on school buses is not the most effective use of government resources to keep our kids safe,” Wilson said at that press conference announcing the task force’s recommendations.
The cost to install shoulder-lap seat belts to a new school bus ranges from $7,000 to $10,000 per vehicle, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s an expensive undertaking, especially given that school buses already are statistically safer than other motor vehicles on the road. That’s why advocates for shoulder-lap seat belts often report on additional benefits beyond improved safety when pushing for related legislation.
For example, Poland said, states and districts that have required shoulder-lap seat belts are reporting fewer disciplinary problems on buses and higher driver satisfaction because children are not moving around the vehicle as much. Educating policymakers on benefits beyond added safety can sometimes make it a more appealing recommendation, Poland added, though, lawmakers often remain unpersuaded.
“I’ve investigated the crashes. I’ve talked to the parents after the crashes,” said Poland. “School buses result in very few fatalities every year. But it’s totally unacceptable when [it’s possible that] we can get to zero.”