Monday, February 26
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How Safe are School Buses? – A Look at the Data

Vehicle crash involving a school bus on Hwy 64 in Asheboro in 2019. [Acme News Archive Photo]

ASHEBORO N.C. – Two separate school bus crashes on October 12th, 2023, raised questions online about the safety of school buses, so we decided to look at the data to see just how safe children who ride the bus to school are on the road.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) school bus accidents account for less than 1% of all traffic fatalities. While that ‘less than 1%’ is a national figure, here in NC, the data backs up that number.

Using crash report numbers from the N.C. Department of Transportation’s annual traffic facts publication for 2015 through 2022, we analyzed the numbers for school bus accidents for North Carolina. 

In the eight years we looked at, N.C. reported over 3.8 million traffic accidents. We focused our attention on the 3,619,024 crashes involving the most common vehicle types which children ride in to get to and from school (passenger cars, trucks, SUVs, vans, school buses, and pedestrians).

From 2015 through 2022 there were between 7,124 and 7,247 school bus crashes in the state, 1,961 of those crashes resulted in injuries, and 36 involved a fatality. 

To put those numbers in context, over the same period, there were 2,057,250 crashes involving passenger cars, 819,986 crashes involving SUVs, and 18,496 crashes involving pedestrians.

The data shows that school bus accidents were the least frequent of all the vehicles we looked at to be involved in a traffic accident, accounting for only 0.20% of all accidents. When compared to all vehicle crashes for all vehicle types across the same time, that number remains nearly the same at 0.19%.

We attempted to calculate the rate of crashes resulting in injuries or fatalities per 1,000 accidents to better compare school buses to other vehicle types, but the sparse number of school buses crashes compared to other vehicle types meant we were unable to produce a statistically valid comparison.

In Randolph County, there were 58 accidents over the eight-year span. An injury was reported in 31 of the 58 accidents, and one fatal accident was reported. Compared to the rest of the state School bus crashes in Randolph County account for 0.81% of all accidents, and 2% of all fatal school bus accidents.

What about Seatbelts?

(Roxane Bay / Adobe Stock)

Under current federal standards, school buses with a gross vehicle weight over 10,000 pounds are not required to have seatbelts for students. School buses depend on both the weight of the vehicle to resist crash forces and the use of “compartmentalization,” which is the “design of school bus seat compartments to absorb force impacts from child passengers both forwards and backwards,” according to a report by the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University.

That report indicates that “research has shown compartmentalization to be effective in protecting bus occupants in frontal and rear‐end impacts, but students must be properly seated and remain in their “compartments” to be protected.”

Under federal standards seat belts are required on school buses under 10,000 pounds.

In a 2011 denial of a petition for rulemaking from the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) and 21 other agencies and organizations requesting that NHTSA mandate three-point seat belts for all seats, on all school buses, the NHTSA cited concerns that the cost could result in fewer buses, which would result in more student taking less safe means of getting to and from school.

The NHTSA stated that the average cost of equipping a large school bus with seatbelts to be between $7,346 and $10,296. They also estimated that if a federal mandate required lap/shoulder belts in all large buses, and 100% of students used them, the change would save an estimated 2 lives annually. However, they also estimated that the drop in school bus capacity “could result in an increase of 10 to 19 school transportation fatalities annually.”

NC’s Experiment with School Bus Seatbelts

In 2003, the NC Department of Public Instruction partnered with the Pupil Transportation Group at the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University to study the real-world experience and consequences of adding seatbelts to NC school buses.

Eleven North Carolina school districts took delivery of thirteen buses equipped with three-point seatbelts.

Problems with capacity were noticed even before delivery, with North Carolina officials having to choose between two seats on either side of a center aisle, or an offset center isle that allowed for three seats on one side and two seats on the other.

Photo from Three-Point Restraint School Bus Seats in North Carolina report (2007)

To preserve as much elementary capacity as possible, the second option was chosen.

Elementary-age school bus capacity was reduced from 71 to 59, middle school capacity saw mixed results in loss in capacity with some buses reporting no loss and others being reduced from 59 to 35. High school students choose to sit two (rather than three) students per seat due to “tight” seating space reducing capacity to by 24 from the designed capacity of 59 to 35.

Drivers estimated that 50% to 75% of the elementary school-age students used the lap/shoulder belts and “nearly zero” for middle to high school age students. Additionally, drivers said while it was possible to enforce and inspect lap/shoulder belt usage before the afternoon bus route, prior to school departure, it was not possible for a single driver to enforce usage during the morning routes, while in route, or due to the 3:2 configuration and high seats, to even be able to tell if a student was wearing the seatbelts.

The combined additional cost for the thirteen buses was roughly $7,700 for each bus.

In the end N.C. Department of Public Instruction decided to request a quote for the configuration with a center isle and two seats on either side. Quotes from manufacturers estimated an additional $100,00 per bus. The report estimated an additional yearly cost of $8.6 million dollars when only factoring in replacement buses. As replacement buses with lower capacity joined the fleet schools would still need to purchase new buses to make up for the loss in capacity, further adding to the cost, that still did not include the cost of hiring and training new bus drivers.

Safer By Design

Even without seatbelts, school buses are some of the most regulated vehicles on the road and they are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in preventing crashes and injuries.

Compartmentalization along with weight of buses, overhead flashing lights, stop arms for halting traffic during loading and unloading, elevated passenger deck, the bright yellow color of buses, their general low speed stop and go travel, along with well-trained drivers all play a factor in making school buses one of if that the safest vehicles on the road.