Transportation consultants and a pedestrian traffic safety researcher said more must be done to assist students in crossing to and from school bus stops, in response to research published this summer by School Transportation News from the 2018-2019 school year.
STN published an initial article in August that outlines instances of school bus and vehicle crashes, as well as other incidents that occurred last school year. STN editors compiled and documented from various wire reports via Google News and categorized them by vehicle crash, roadway crossing incident or loading/unloading zone incident. The information should not be considered to be a scientific study.
At least 2,551 injuries to both school bus passengers and passengers in other vehicles were involved in 1,365 crashes that occurred last school year. According to data that STN collected, 1,726 of the injuries were to children who were riding on the school bus. However, most injuries were reported to be minor.
A total of five students, plus one adult volunteer and five bus drivers, were killed while riding a school bus the last school year, wire reports showed. That figure is similar to NHTSA data that reports an average of four to six children is killed each school year while riding the school bus.
The noteworthy anomaly from previous figures of school bus deaths was the number of students who were injured or killed while crossing the street to their school bus or school bus stop, students hit by illegally passing vehicles, and students who were struck while walking on the side of the road to or from their school bus stop.
The School Transportation News research found 70 injuries relating to school bus crossings and 17 fatalities. The deaths are the most since the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE) National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey reported there were 18 fatalities for the 2008-2009 school year, and 20 fatalities during the 2004-2005 school year. The national survey of states for this past school year was released in October and states that eight students were killed.
Onboard School Bus Deaths/Injuries
“If you look at the number of children who die inside the school bus over the last 10 years, the average is five a year,” said Jeff Cassell, founder and senior advisor to the School Bus Safety Company. “A child is the most valuable thing in the world, but five is a very low number. And of course, that is one of the reasons I fight seatbelts—because you’ll find that of those five kids who died inside the bus, four died at the point of impact, where a seatbelt would not save them.”
Meanwhile, in a 2018 documentary, ‘Safe Enough?’ journalist Anna D. Rau followed the story of 7-year-old Sarah Fark, who was killed in 2008 in a school bus crash. The documentary featured several industry experts and asked the question of whether school buses are ‘Safe Enough?’ without lap/shoulder seatbelts, including how they can help prevent injuries. The film concluded that they were not safe enough. The documentary was shown at the 2019 STN EXPO in Reno during the trade show.
Rau spoke with School Transportation News on the production of her documentary and said there were times when she was barely holding back the tears.
“I was struck by how fast these [crashes] happen and how fast Sarah’s life was over,” Rau explained. “There was nothing they could do for her. There was no surgery they could have gotten her to fast enough. The sad part is that after the crash happened, she was trying to get up and she was asking for her mother, which makes me almost cry right now. She was not knowing that she was mortally wounded already—that it was over for her. That is so horrible, with just a seatbelt she would be fine, fine.”
Rau added, “So, you can tell I am an advocate on this one. I am not usually. I usually take and let things fall where they may. But when a kid’s life is at stake, and there’s money to make sure they are not [harmed]. Children are terribly injured in these accidents. Why wouldn’t you do it? All that being said, had there been adequate good reasoning for not doing this, I am open to that. … I just deemed what they had to say, pretty much. The truth was hurtful—that it costs too much, and we are willing to lose some kids, and that is the truth.”
Fatality/Injuries While Crossing
Seventy children were injured in school bus-related crossing incidents. That tally includes everything from being hit at bus stops and walking to/from school bus stops, to loading/unloading and crossing the street.
One element of this is “behavior, and another element of is pure chance,” Cassell said. “We always say the difference between a child getting a slight bruise and [being killed] can be one second and one step. So, a little bit is fortunate happenstance.”
Cassell said the industry needs to start looking at the ages of children who are required to cross the street to reach their bus stop.
According to the data that STN collected, most of those deaths occurred between the ages of 6 and 10. The KSDE Loading and Unloading Survey mirrors that statistic, which confirmed that 21 kids were hit and killed between the ages of 6 and 10 in a five-year span of 2013-2017. That is more than half of the total number of students who were killed during that period.
The KSDE Loading and Unloading Survey report stated that “during the past 47 years the largest percentage of fatalities, 73.2 percent (906 fatalities), occurred to students nine years of age and under.”
Related: Research Shows Potential Scope of 2018-2019 School Bus Injuries & Fatalities
Related: Journalist Discusses Production of ‘Safe Enough?’ School Bus Seatbelt Documentary
Related: Experts Advise Hard Stance to Prevent School Bus Crossing Deaths
Related: National School Bus Loading, Unloading Fatalities Double
Related: First Reported School Bus Stop Injury of 2019-2020 School Year
Elizabeth O’Neal, a research scholar at the University of Iowa, told School Transportation News that children don’t cross the street like adults until they are about 14 years old.
She studied road crossings with children, and compiled data that showed why younger kids can’t cross the street as efficiently or safely as adults. Her research compared one lane with traffic traveling at a steady speed, with children of all ages in a virtual reality setting, with students crossing the roadway several times. O’Neal presented her research to attendees at the STN EXPO Indianapolis in June.
She told STN that her studies show that children under 12 years of age entered the roadway at a more delayed sequence, but still had a closer gap between oncoming traffic, compared to a 12-year-old who waited for the larger gap before crossing the roadway.
“What we routinely see in our pedestrian work is that younger kids are not very good at timing their movement through the roadway,” O’Neal said. “Especially dense traffic. So let’s say that you have a gap in traffic; an adult will enter behind the first car, … in order to give themselves more time to spare at the end of the crossing.”
However, children are not very good at this process and delay their entry into the roadway, she noted. O’Neal attributes this to children’s lack of control over how they move.
An example of that limited control is seen when attempting to catch a ball, she said. Humans must plan and prepare their movement—not according to where the ball is currently, but where it is anticipated to be when caught.
“We think that kids need more practice in gaining prospective control of their movements so that they can time their movement properly with their decision within the gap,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal described how parents [or transportation directors] can take this information and better educate their children on proper crossing techniques. In another research study, O’Neal looked at parents interacting with their kids when approaching a stop and found that parents don’t do an adequate job in teaching their children about crossing roads with cars.
“Instead of saying, let’s go now, let’s cross right now, they should say … let’s go after this next one,” O’Neal said. “It gives kids an opportunity to prepare those movements and then we do see that kids time their entry much more tightly into that gap.”
O’Neal said she wants to use this research to further enhance pedestrian safety training. This can be accomplished, she explained, by developing techniques to train parents on how to better teach their children to plan their crossing more efficiently and safely.
“When [adults] cross the roads, we engage in the behavior without thinking very much about it,” O’Neal said. “We judge the gap as its coming, we know which one we are going to cross. We know it before it gets there, then we prepare our movements and scoot through as quickly as possible. But because we engage in this without having to really think about it very much, that may be part of why [parents] are not talking to kids explicitly about this.”
O’Neil observed that they should be “seeing if we can talk to parents and give them some examples of things that they can do, like teaching their kids to anticipate the gap they are going to cross before it gets to them, and see if that is helpful. See if we can train parents to be better teachers to their kids,” she added.
Another indicator that Cassell and industry consultant Dick Fisher discussed was school bus drivers and their influence on education. Cassell said that it is up to the bus driver to educate the students on the proper way to cross the street.
“It is the school bus driver’s job to make sure the kids cross correctly,” Cassell said. “And correctly means they stop at the edge of the bumper. They look left and right themselves, they look back up at the driver and he/she signals to them to complete the crossing. That is not taking place in every instance. I find it absolutely ridiculous, because it [only] takes a moment. The driver has an opportunity every single day to see if it is followed or not. And that’s why we are burying kids—because they are not doing it.”
Cassell noted that school bus drivers have the opportunity to educate students every day and keep them safe with proper crossing education.
“Every single day, the driver gets to watch the kids cross. So every day, the driver has the opportunity to make them do it right,” Cassell said. “So, if you don’t do it right, you shouldn’t shrug your shoulders and say ‘Oh [expletive].’ You should take action. It’s their job to make sure the kids cross safely. If we do that, we will get rid of these crossing deaths.”
The California Way
The State of California Department of Motor Vehicles states in section 10.2.3 on School Bus Unloading Procedures On the Route that “if the school bus is stopped on a highway or private road for the purpose of loading or unloading pupils, at a location where traffic is not controlled by a traffic officer or official traffic control signal, the school bus driver shall do all of the following.”
Thus, school bus drivers must escort students who are in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten or any grades first through eight, when they need to cross the highway or private road where the school bus is stopped. The driver must also remove the keys from the bus ignition and use an approved hand-held stop sign while escorting the child across the street.
“No kid has been killed with the driver outside the bus since 1932, and why not? You think I’m going to go out in the middle of the road and get hit?” Fisher explained. “I am going to make sure that before I step into that lane of travel, I am going to make sure that [car] is stopped in the middle and I’ll walk them across.”
A California Department of Education representative told School Transportation News that California first began escorting children across the roadway on Oct. 8, 1932, originally starting as a permissive policy. On Nov. 4, 1953, four years after the installation of flashing red lights on the school buses, drivers were required to stop the vehicle and escort children across the roadway.
The CDE confirmed Fisher’s claim, that since 1932, California has had no recorded student fatality while the children were being escorted by the school bus driver. That person stands in the middle of the street and stops traffic, while the bus red lights are flashing and the federally mandated stop arm is extended.
Cassell said California is in its own category when it comes to kids crossing streets, because it is the only state that requires drivers to escort students.
“It’s not that we should accept the cost of taking kids to school that 60 will die crossing the street. No, it should be zero,” Cassell said. “And if we make the kids cross correctly, it will be better.”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series that reviews school bus safety and the 2018-2019 school year.