On May 12, a 13-year-old student pedestrian was struck and killed by a motorist. According to preliminary information released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which announced it was investigating the crash for the safety of school bus routes and stops as well as driver behavior while approaching stopped school buses and technologies to prevent or mitigate the severity of crashes while children are entering or exiting the school bus a school bus was stopped to board a student passenger in the westbound lane of a state highway near Sauk County, Wisconsin.
The two lane highway has paved shoulders and a posted 55mph speed limit. The NTSB added that the flashing amber and red lights at the front and rear of the bus were activated, and the stop arm was deployed. Eastbound traffic had reportedly stopped or the school bus. All but an F-150 pickup truck operated by a 17-year-old driver, which approached from the rear of the school bus at an unknown speed as this writing. The teenage motorist didn’t stop in time and swerved to the right to avoid the bus, in the process sideswiping the right rear corner. The F-150 continued onto a private driveway, striking Evelyn Gurney.
Her death is not the only one that could have been prevented this past school year and in years previous. According to a spreadsheet culled from national news articles by safety consultant Richard Fischer, 27 fatalities occurred during the 2022-2023 school year, as the result of a school bus hitting a pedestrian/bicyclist (student or adult) or a passing motorist striking a child at their school bus stop or while walking to or from the school bus stop. That’s not to mention the over 60 injures that Fischer recorded.
Meanwhile, a spreadsheet developed by School Transportation News compiled news articles from last school year indicated four of the six student fatalities occurred
after a school bus hit a student. One of those incidents was an 18-year-old San Jose State football player who was hit by a school bus while riding an electric scooter. The other two were results of either illegal passing, such as in Gurney’s case, or when a middle school student in Florida was hit and killed by a motorist while waiting for his school bus.
The most recent National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey administered by the Kansas Department of Education for the 2021-2022 school year cites four fatalities caused by school buses. Two were attributed to other vehicles. The 2022-2023 data is expected to be released in November at the National State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services conference in Washington, D.C.
Plus, in June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published its latest Traffic Safety Facts, which includes School-Transportation. Related Crashes from 2012 to 2021. The agency reported on similar findings, stating that there was 1.6 times more fatalities among pedestrians (183) than occupants of school transportation vehicles (113) during the period studied. Out of the 113 occupants killed in school transportation vehicles, 52 were drivers and 61 were passengers.
NHTSA said an average of 111 fatalities per year (for a total of 1,110 fatalities) occur in school transportation related crashes, 70 percent of which were occupants of other vehicles.
When looking at the 206 school-age children who died in school transportation related crashes from 2012-2021, NHTSA stated that 42 were occupants of school transportation vehicles, 80 were occupants of other vehicles, 78 were pedestrians, five were bicyclists, and one was described as “other.” NHTSA also found that of all the school age pedestrians killed in school transportation related crashes, 19 percent were struck by a school transportation vehicle that was traveling along a straight road.
The information was compiled based on data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Fischer, as he reiterated to STN for this article and told attendees during STN EXPO Indianapolis in June, said driver education and lack of compliance with section 10 of the Commercial Driver’s License manual used by all 50 states are driving factors in these deaths. School bus drivers are at fault for far too many fatalities, he noted, and the driver shortage could be forcing the drivers that are on staff to take on more routes, encouraging a sped up pick up and drop off routine that could result in tragedy.
However, research indicates more students are injured when traveling in a school bus than when navigating the Danger Zone around school bus stops. And while Danger Zone safety should remain a priority, a greater emphasis should be place on ensuring passenger safety inside the school bus.
Diving Into Injuries:
Just last month, 11 students were injured in Idaho after their activity bus was
involved in a rollover crash. Seven teens were reportedly in critical condition.
Yet school bus injury data is far and few between.
In November 2006, the journal Pediatrics published the report “School Bus–Related Injuries Among Children and Teenagers in the United States, 2001-2003,” which examined nonfatal school bus related injuries among children and teenagers. The report found that 51,100 school bus related injuries were treated in U.S emergency rooms from 2001 through 2003, or 17,000 injuries annually nationwide, with motor vehicle crash as the most frequent injury mechanism (42.3 percent) for all age groups. Injuries that occurred as the child was boarding, exiting or approaching the bus were almost half that amount at 23.8 percent.
Ninety-seven percent of children were reportedly treated and released from the hospital, and children 10 to 14 years of age accounted for the greatest proportion of injuries, 43 percent, compared with all other age groups. Head injuries accounted for more than half (52.1 percent) of all injuries among children younger than 10. Lower extremity injuries were more common among children 10 to 19 years of age. Strains and sprains accounted for the highest percentage of all injuries, followed by contusions, abrasions and lacerations. More than three-quarters of lacerations were to the head.
“Although seatbelts have the potential to influence some of the injuries in the 42.3 percent of cases involving motor vehicle crashes in this study, we were unable to determine whether seatbelts would have prevented these motor vehicle crash–related injuries because of lack of sufficient detail in the narratives,” the report states. “This limitation also makes it difficult to estimate the impact that seatbelts or other preventive strategies might have had on injuries from boarding/alighting, slip/fall, traffic non-crash events, or other/unknown mechanisms of injury.”
The report added that supervision can also play a role in reducing school bus-related injuries. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which authored the report, recommends “supervision focusing on keeping children seated, ensuring the use of seatbelts when available, and ensuring safe behavior while riding the bus,” the report states. “This would best be accomplished with an adult other than the bus driver on the bus. The presence of a second adult on the school bus may also prevent driver distraction by providing a monitor to supervise passengers and allowing the driver to focus on the road. Supervision may also play an important role in reducing boarding and alighting injuries; helping to maintain crowd control, pushing, and shoving; and assuring safe embarkment and disembarkment.”
The study was the first of its kind, but this summer the lead author indicated to STN there are currently no plans to update the study. The National Safety Council (NSC) also reports on school-bus related crashes and the injuries that result every year. The NSC injury data is tabulated from the NHTSA crash report sampling system, resulting in inconclusive data for school busing, a spokesperson said.
Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics for NSC, explained how the agency is limited in collecting data. “The non-fatal data is a sampling of the crashes, so it’s not 100 percent [accurate],” he noted, adding that NHTSA gives specific weights to crashes. “And then [NHTSA researchers] use some sampling weights to create national estimates. And that system works really well, most of the time.”
Where Kolosh said the sampling tends to fall flat is with really rare events, which includes school bus crashes. “School buses are very safe, and the events are really rare compared to your everyday traffic collisions that are being sampled,” Kolosh continued. “Because of that, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the estimates and that’s seen in the injury facts. We don’t even have estimates for school bus passenger injuries for 2021.
It’s just too small to estimate.” According to the data NSC does have available, it estimates that from 2012-2021 about 40,000 school bus passengers were injured, with only about 600 injuries reported in 2020 and less than 500 in 2021 (due in part to COVID-19 and the lack of school buses and vehicles in general on the road).
Additionally, the agency provides an interactive chart on its website, where
participants can find cited school bus related deaths for 2021. Data is searchable by factors such as state, month, day of week, and time of day. The data gets as granular with information on the age and sex of the individual.
Kolosh noted that if NHTSA is on par with its previous years, and not this past year when data was released late, he excepts the 2022 FARS report to come out sometime in November or December.
“If you think of [the data] from the perspective of a parent… there certainly has been some horrific crashes that have made the news and have been just tragic…I could see a parent really being concerned with putting their child on a school bus. I hope data like this, and other sources really do show that school buses are safe,” he explained. “National Safety Council is going to advocate for them to even be safer, but they are safe.”
He pointed out that only about 5 percent of the deaths, an average of about six deaths a year, are school bus occupants.
As for state legislators, Kolosh said they should consider the statistic that an average of 116 people die each year in school-bus-related crashes, and more needs to be done to keep them safe. “That would include things like moving from just depending on compartmentalization to proper [lap/shoulder] seatbelts, that would include the enforcement of making sure that other vehicles are not unsafely passing school buses,” he added. “It would also include school bus operators making sure they have protocols in place for the safe boarding and [deboarding] of students.”
He said school districts leaders can also order new buses with lap/shoulder seatbelts, which will help improve safety. “What can they do to help improve loading and unloading procedures?” he advised districts asking themselves. “Is there any opportunity to work with law enforcement to hopefully improve the safety of vehicles
that are sharing the road with the school buses, again, they can enforce safe passing procedures.”
Long-term, Kolosh said more work can be done proactively rather than reactionary with lawmakers, especially regarding lap/shoulder seatbelt mandates. “Unfortunately, many of these laws are written in blood after a horrific crash,” he said. “Hopefully that doesn’t have to happen in each and every state to get progressive laws in place.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the September 2023 issue of School Transportation News.
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