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Why Don't Kids Have to Buckle Up on the Bus?

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Dr. Cara Natterson: My daughter started a new school this year. That fact doesn't have me worried at all, but this one does: she's taking the bus.

kids on a school bus

I chose to put her on the bus for a whole host of reasons -- social development, ease, just plain fun. But as the first day of school approached, I found myself increasingly worried that I was making a mistake. I latch my child into a permanently installed 5-point restraint system every time we get into my car. Until she turned 6 a few weeks ago, I did so because I had to: it is the law here in California. Now I do so because it seems insane not to: she's still 45 pounds, and turning 6 didn't change anything about the way her little body might be thrown around a car if there were an impact. How could I possibly put my light-as-a-feather child on a school bus with no car seat, no booster, maybe no seatbelt? Am I making a terrible mistake? Are school buses dangerous?

As it turns out, the answer is a resounding "No." It turns out kids on the bus might even be safer.

The National Health and Transportation Safety Authority (NHTSA) publishes data about school bus safety. In 2006, there were 450,000 public school buses that drove 4.3 billion miles transporting 23.5 million kids. That year, the total number of fatalities on school buses was 0 (although in an average year, it is 6). By comparison, there were more than 42,000 people killed in non-bus traffic crashes. Now this comparison isn't entirely fair because a lot more people drive in cars (and vans and small trucks), so there are bound to be more fatalities. When NHTSA compared apples to apples, they still determined that school buses are a lot safer than passenger cars -- approximately seven times safer.

If this data is true, then what makes buses so safe? How could the long, lean, impossibly unchanged school bus be better than locking my child -- two clips in the groin and one across the chest -- into my own car?

Some people believe it is "compartmentalization." The design that makes school buses feel so unique -- you know, the way bus seats are so crammed together so that you can barely keep your knees off the seat back in front of you -- is actually a safety device. This passive restraint system creates a "compartment," protecting the rider from crash forces. And because of their size, large school buses distribute crash forces differently than passenger cars, so when a bus is in a head-on collision, the crash force is less intense than it would be if a car were in the same collision.

Compartmentalization became the reason why school buses didn't get seat belts. In the late 1980s, studies by the National Transportation Board and the National Academy of Sciences suggested that the majority of serious injuries and fatalities on school buses wouldn't have been avoided with seat belts. As recently as 2002, NHTSA submitted a report to Congress reaffirming this notion.

Now, all school buses are not created equal. The smaller buses (weighing 10,000 pounds or less) are more similar to cars than to big buses. For this reason, crash forces are not as disseminated and seat belts are considered a must-have.

And all crashes aren't considered equal either. The NHTSA has focused on front-impact crashes. There is very little safety information when it comes to side-impact or rollover crashes. I understand how bus design might be protective when a bus hits another vehicle head-on, but if the bus is hit from the side or if the bus topples, compartmentalization would seem to have limited -- maybe no -- utility. In fact, critics are especially outraged because one of the initial studies that motivated today's laws clearly suggested that compartmentalization should be used in conjunction with lap belts in order for it to work.

So at this point, we are left with a sizeable inconsistency: today's children are taught the importance of strapping in or buckling up any time they are in a moving vehicle ... except when that vehicle is a bus. And parents are also asked to do a 180: in our own cars, we have to install special bases for infant car seats, position our young children just so, and negotiate with our toddlers as we see them wriggling out of their harness straps. It is hard to let it go and have faith that our young children will be safe -- or even capable of sitting still -- unrestrained on a school bus seat.

But all of this inconsistency doesn't mean danger. It is in fact safer for a child to ride a bus than to drive in a car to school. It's safer to ride the bus than to walk to school, ride a bike, or even to cross in front of the bus after the ride is over. That said, I think there should be seat belts on school buses ... but now I have just opened up a whole new (and also age-old) debate over whether buckled-in kids are able to free themselves from a burning or sinking bus.

Who's with me?

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3 comments so far | Post a comment now
That Guy September 29, 2009, 12:36 PM

How did you ever manage to survive childhood without wearing a helmet on your bicycle?

ame i. September 30, 2009, 7:36 AM

I don’t send my kids on the bus to school b/c I’ve riden the bus with them on field trips & some of those drivers scared the heck out of me.
I felt more comfortable during the 2 years my younger child has a classmate in a wheelchair. Her class got to ride “his” bus, which did have seatbelts.

That Guy September 30, 2009, 9:57 AM

^ WWW - Worry Wart Wuss

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