How safe are school buses that children ride every day?


by WHAS11

Posted on November 19, 2012 at 7:23 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 20 at 6:36 AM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Each year in the United States, school buses are involved in more than 26,000 crashes, or about 145 each school day.

Several recent crashes have made news right here in Kentuckiana. So how safe are the buses your kids ride every day?

“With the recent crashes and stuff, I wouldn't let my child ride on a school bus,” parent Susan Rehm said.

A crash on Lower River Road in Louisville in September sent 51 students to the hospital. Luckily, none of their injuries were fatal.

“There was just that crash up in Carrollton where those two little kids died. It's just scary,” Rehm said.

A Smart Start bus ran off a road in Carroll County, overturned and hit a tree. Caroline Tuttle and Ryder Deitz, both just three-years-old, died. Several other children were injured.

“It's tragic. It's life altering, not only for the families and the kids, of course, but people in my position. People I work with,” Kentucky Department of Education Pupil Transportation Supervisor Roy Prince said.

He said despite recent high profile crashes, school buses have never been safer.

“I have children and grandchildren of my own. I want them on a school bus. Not in my car. They're safer there,” Prince said.

Nationwide, nearly 500,000 school buses carry more than 23 million students more than four billion miles each year, yet there are less than 20 average fatalities.

That means your child is more than twice as likely to be killed by a lightning strike than to die in a school bus crash. Those low numbers didn't get there by accident.

“You never relax, you're up all day, up all night, worrying about the safety of the students,” Mark Watson, Transportation Director for Franklin County Schools, said.

A tragic accident on May 14, 1988 in Kentucky helped make school buses all over the world much safer.

“It was an old Meade County school bus that was sold to a church in Radcliff. And it was built, I believe 13 days before federal standards kicked in,” Prince said.

A drunken driver going the wrong way on I-71 in Carrollton hit the bus, causing it to burst into flames. Twenty-four children and three adults died.

Just before the crash, the federal government had mandated steel guards around fuel tanks and the use of diesel fuel instead of highly flammable gasoline, but the old bus didn't meet those standards.

And, at that time, the front and rear doors were the only means of escape.

“That's why we have roof hatches and the left side door, flame retardant seats and all of the emergency evacuation areas,” Prince said.

Modern-day buses also have front windshields that can be kicked out as well as removable side windows.

One safety feature you won't find on modern full-size buses is seat belts, which national studies say aren't needed because of the way modern-day buses are built and students sit above where most vehicles could hit. 

“It's kind of like a rolling tank. Every two feet on the inside of the metal, there's beams going up the wall. There's beams going up the ceiling and they make little compartments,” Prince said.

Seat belts can also be a problem in cases of fire, or when students could be trapped.

“The driver can't cut seat belts for 50 or 60 kids if the bus is aflame or there's fuel leaking after a wreck. You want to get them off,” he said.

In Kentucky, short buses, like the one in the recent Carroll County crash, do have seat belts, since they sit much lower to the ground and don’t have as much mass.

They make up about 18 percent of the state's fleet and are used primarily to transport Smart Start, special needs and other students who live places where regular buses don't fit.

Prince said there’s no difference in the safety records of larger and smaller buses.

The state requires monthly school bus inspections, extensive driver training and constant monitoring of the state's 11,500 bus drivers' driving records for such things as speeding tickets or DUIs.

More than a dozen pilot programs involving new safety equipment are currently being tested in the Commonwealth.

“We're a model and I'm proud of that,” Prince said.

High profile crashes may cause some parents doubts.

“It's kind of scary, you don't know who's driving the bus,” Tatiana Rolon said.

Those who do know who is driving said they have all the confidence they can hundreds of thousands of children will arrive at school and back home again safely.

Transportation officials said buses average .2 fatalities for every 100,000,000 miles. Passenger cars average about eight times that amount.
The Jefferson County Public Schools bus fleet, which includes 1,200 buses, is one of the top 20 largest transportation systems in the world.