When it comes to school buses, safe is a relative term.
Last November, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced a new policy on an issue that has vexed local and federal officials for generations: Should school buses be required to have seat belts? The federal government wasn’t requiring them, but for the first time, the NHTSA was recommending that schools install them on all buses, not just on the smaller “van” models.
Which isn’t to say federal officials now think school buses are unsafe. They still maintain they’re the safest way to transport kids to school. Fewer than 10 children are killed each year in school bus accidents nationwide. Traditionally, school bus safety has been founded on a theory of “compartmentalization” – seats and walls are reinforced and padded so that passengers will bounce around the bus’s interior, pinball-like, without sustaining serious injuries.
But survivability doesn’t always equal safety. A Milwaukee Magazine analysis of federal data has found that school buses are actually about three times more likely than other vehicles to be involved in accidents. While the average (non-school bus) vehicle went about 500,000 miles in 2014 before being involved in an accident, the average school bus only goes about 148,000 miles (see below for How We Did the Study). There are no definitive numbers on how many school bus accidents happen each year – only how many prove fatal – but according to federal estimates, about 38,800 school bus crashes occurred in 2014, up from approximately 34,700 in 2013. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, there were 588 school bus crashes in the Badger State in 2014, and 134 of those involved injured school bus passengers.
According to our analysis, the majority of school bus accidents are rear-end collisions: In 2014, some 52 percent of car-on-car crashes involving school buses were rear-ends, as compared with only 31 percent of all such crashes. A casual review of news stories finds many cases of drivers running into the back ends of school buses that are stopped, with their lights flashing, to let children off. In February, a 40-year-old man died on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side after he crashed into the back of a parked school bus.
It’s clear from NHTSA reports that the safest place to be during a crash with a school bus is inside the school bus. The vast majority of people injured during bus accidents are pedestrians or the occupants of other vehicles. Still, NHTSA estimates that about 7,000 children are injured each year during school bus accidents. And another 10,000 kids are hurt while boarding a school bus or moving around inside it, whether because of a sharp turn or rough-housing, according to a 2006 study by the Columbus (Ohio) Children’s Hospital’s Center for Injury Research. The study’s authors identified seat belts as a possible solution.
Prior to November’s announcement, the NHTSA had declined to recommend them for all school buses. For years, the federal government has focused laser-like on fatality statistics, which show an incredibly low incidence, and officials worried that a seat belt requirement could lower bus capacities and push children into more dangerous cars driven by parents or teenagers.
There’s nothing sleek about school buses, and their daily routes are a gantlet of stopping and maneuvering amid rush-hour traffic. “It’s a big, bulky vehicle,” says Stephen Hargarten, director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “I’m not surprised there are going to be some crashes.”
The NHTSA declined an interview request for this story, as did Milwaukee Public Schools. Janesville remains the only school district in Wisconsin that requires seat belts on all of its buses.