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School Bus Safety FAQs

Is school transportation a large enterprise?

There are over 400,000 yellow school buses on U.S. roads and over 70,000 in Canada. The industry spends about $20 billion annually, mostly in the form of reimbursement to school districts for state-supported transportation costs.

How many children ride school buses?

In the U.S., student transporters often cite a number of 25 million children riding school buses to school, and then return home on school buses. That figure is based on data reported by states that is over a decade old. More recent information from the Federal Highway Administration Household Travel Survey indicates the figure is closer to 17 million. That means anywhere from one-third to half of the K-12 population rides yellow buses to and from school. When you multiply the daily ridership times the number of school days school buses provide the U.S. with an estimated 5 billion to 10 billion student rides annually.

Why are school buses painted yellow?

In 1939, delegates to the first National Minimum Standards Conference wanted a uniform color so school buses would be recognized by the same color nationwide. A second consideration was cost, since manufacturers charged additionally for special colors. Plus, delegates concluded that for safety’s sake, yellow was easier to see in fog, rain, and other bad weather conditions.
National School Bus Chrome Yellow was first adopted at that conference. By the way, the conference was held at Teachers College, Columbia University, April 10-16, 1939. All 48 states, at the time, were represented, usually by someone from the state department of education. The group called itself the “National Council of Chief State School Officers,” and H.E. Hendrix, State Superintendent of Public Instruction of Arizona, was the first president.
In 1974 the federal government approved Standard 17. In this standard, which has since been revised and is now a highway safety guideline, the federal government suggested that school buses should be painted National School Bus Chrome Yellow. That’s when the states started to use yellow on all new buses. At present there is no federal law that requires school buses to be painted yellow. It is up to each state to do so. Some states, South Carolina for example, paint some of their school buses, in this case activity buses, white though the bulk of the state’s fleet is painted school bus yellow.

What is the number of persons who can safely sit on a school bus seat?

Federal regulation does not specify the number of persons that can sit on a school bus seat. The school bus manufacturers determine the maximum seating capacity of a school bus. The manufacturers use this number, which is based on sitting three small elementary school age persons per typical 39-inch school bus seat, in the calculations for determining the gross vehicle weight rating and the number of emergency exits. School transportation providers generally determine the number of persons that they can safely fit into a school bus seat. Generally they fit three smaller elementary school age persons or two adult high school age persons into a typical 39 inch school bus seat.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that all passengers be seated entirely within the confines of the school bus seats while the bus is in motion. Federal motor vehicle safety standard No. 222, “School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection” requires that the interior of large buses provide occupant protection so that children are protected without the need to buckle-up. Occupant crash protection is provided by a protective envelope consisting of strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs. Persons not sitting or sitting partially outside of the school bus seats will not be afforded the occupant protection provided by the school bus seats. It should be noted that FMVSS No. 222 was revised in 2008 to include additional manufacturing guidelines to safely incorporate 3-point lap/shoulder belt restraints in school buses, and previously school bus seating manufacturers began producing and marketing flexible bench seats that can fit three smaller, elementary-age students per seat buckled up or two larger middle school to high school-age students. This solved the problem of losing passenger capacity on school buses that are equipped with seat belts.

What about seat belts? Why don’t school buses have seat belts?

The short answer is that small school buses do require seat belts; large school buses, with a few exceptions, don’t. Seat belts are not required on larger buses because the U.S. Department of Transportation and others, including Transport Canada, have determined that compartmentalization is the preferred occupant protection system.

Here’s the longer answer.

Small buses, that is those under 10,000 lbs., are required by federal law to carry seat belts, and NHTSA’s 2008 update to FMVSS 207, 208, 210 and 220 set standards for mandatory 3-point lap/shoulder restraints on these smaller “Type A” school buses. That’s because these smaller buses are judged to be closer in size to automobiles and light trucks, and the federal government requires a level of occupant protection similar to what it requires for automobiles and light trucks. However, the same is not required for large school buses for a wide variety of reasons. Large buses typically weight 23,000 lbs or more. NHTSA’s same regulatory update said local school districts are the best equipped to decide whether the larger “Type C” and Type D school buses have the seat belts. If the answer is yes, the manufacturing guidelines for how to best install these restraints comes into play.

What is compartmentalization?

Compartmentalization is a passive occupant protection strategy unique to school buses. Student riders are surrounded by a compartment of energy absorbing material — 4-inch-thick foam seats, seat frames that bend to absorb crash forces, and a vehicle designed to absorb energy. The idea is the crash forces will be dissipated or absorbed before they get to the student passengers. However, compartmentalization doesn’t work as well in rollover crashes, hence one of the reasons for NHTSA’s regulatory update on seat belts.

What are the arguments in favor of compartmentalization?

Compartmentalization is a passive strategy. It exists without any action required on the part of the children or extra supervision by the drivers.
What are the arguments in favor of seat belts on school buses?

The principle arguments in favor of mandating seat belts on large school buses include protection in side impact collisions, prevention of ejection in the event of rollover accidents, carryover value to adulthood of learning proper seat belt use as a child, and low cost to install. Check out our dedicated Seat Belt section that takes a closer look at this volatile subject. (Close the second window on your browser to return to this section.)

Where are seat belts mandated on large school buses?

To date only six states have seat belt laws. New York, New Jersey and Florida have mandated 2-point lap-shoulder belts belts on large school buses. Louisiana has a two-point lap belt law contingent upon state funding, which there is none. California enacted legislation that requires three-point occupant restraint systems on large buses large and small buses. Texas also has a law for three-point seat belts but offers school districts no funding to implement the systems. In addition, since February 1996, seat belts have been required on minibuses used in school transport in Great Britain.

How safe are school buses? I hear about school bus accidents quite often.

According to the National Safety Council, school buses are the safest form of ground transportation. In fact they are about 40 times safer then the family car.

What about fatalities? School bus fatalities do occur!

Yes, unfortunately they do. In an average year, about 25 school children are killed in school bus accidents. One third of these are struck by their own school bus in the loading/unloading zone, one third are struck by motorists who fail to stop for the school bus, and one third are killed as pedestrians approaching or departing the school bus stop. Very few are killed inside the bus. The most common fatality involving a school bus is to a motorist who hits the bus. There are about 120 Americans killed annually in this type of fatality.

Where does the information about school bus fatalities come from?

There are three major sources: the National Safety Council, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Kansas Department of Education. The NSC offers both fatality and injury data, though its data is based on projections and extrapolations. Through the Fatal Accident Reporting System, or FARS as it is known, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collects data on all highway fatalities–automobiles, trucks, buses, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.–in the nation. The agency has very strict criteria a fatality must meet to be included in its database. For instance, from FARS we know that an average of 120 motorists are killed annually when their automobile runs into a school bus. That’s the most common fatality related to school buses.

The annual School Bus Loading & Unloading Zone Survey by the Kansas Department of Education, published in December or early January, reports the number of fatal accidents in the so called “danger zone” around the school bus. The danger zone is defined as the area 10 feet in front of, behind, and to both sides of the school bus. The data shows that is where most of the school bus accidents and fatalities to school children occur. They are either run over by their own school bus or struck by a motorist passing the stopped school bus. This series of data goes back to 1968. It only tracks student fatalities outside the bus. It does not compile data about fatalities or injuries to students or drivers inside the bus. Nor does it track fatalities to motorists who may collide with a school bus, nor data about student lives saved through the use of seat belts. Efforts are currently underway to expand the survey to include injury data.

What about injury data?

The principal sources of national injury information about school buses is the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Many states annually publish injury and fatality data also.
The NSC projects injury data nationwide based on accident reports submitted to it by state departments of education.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also has monitored the number of school bus injuries, but its data looks for all instances in which a child had to visit the emergency room after an incident on a bus. It’s important to note that this analysis could include anything from a student fight to slipping on the bus stairwell when loading or unloading.

What’s this status of using school buses for racial integration purposes?

No one knows for sure how many court-ordered busing plans are–or were–in place. Not even the U.S. Department of Justice keeps track of this information. However, in its heyday, experts in the field estimated there were as many as 400 court-ordered busing plans. Busing for integration purposes still exists, but more commonly it is now being reversed. Urban centers such as Cleveland and Denver have totally eliminated court-ordered busing.
How are school buses regulated?

No one knows for sure how many court-ordered busing plans are–or were–in place. Not even the U.S. Department of Justice keeps track of this information. However, in its heyday, experts in the field estimated there were as many as 400 court-ordered busing plans.

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