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Simplifying Science

The Freedom to Travel Unrestrained: Why Don't Children Have to Buckle-Up on the Bus?

My daughter is starting a new school this week. That fact doesn’t have me worried at all, but this one does: she’s taking the 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”. (You would have guessed right if you assumed that a “yes” answer would have changed the opening of this blog and she wouldn’t have been taking the bus in the first place). It turns out kids on the bus might even be safer.

The National Health and Transportation Safety Authority (NHTSA) publish 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 (though 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 NTSB (National Transportation Board) and NAS (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 compartmentalization 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, vocal critics are especially outraged that compartmentalization has become a stand-alone safety concept because one of the initial studies that motivated today’s laws clearly suggested that it be used in conjunction with lap belts.

Lawmakers are starting to change their tune, no doubt because more than a few have school-aged kids who ride the bus so they think about these things. In 2002, NHTSA required the LATCH system on all small buses. In 2004, safety vests were allowed to be attached to bus seats. In many states, though, it is worth noting that school buses are specifically exempt form state safety restraint laws. Which is why in many parts of the country my waifish daughter is legally allowed to jump onto a bus without lugging a booster seat, even if she hadn’t turned 6.

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… well, 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—on a school bus seat unrestrained.

But all of this inconsistency doesn’t mean danger. Statistically, 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, ride a bike, or even to cross in front of the bus after the ride is over. Statistically, fewer kids get hurt while riding the school bus than using any of these other forms of transportation. 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 entrapment and whether buckled-in kids are able to free themselves from a burning or sinking bus.

*The actual law is that children under 6 years of age OR under 60 pounds must be in a child restrain system, which means a 5-point restraint car seat or a booster. I use a permanently installed car seat because data shows that most of the time when car seats are uninstalled and reinstalled, they are put in improperly; boosters on the other hand can be taken in and out of the car with ease.