School bus related fatalities are uncommon. From 2006 and 2015, 1,313 people were killed in school-transportation-related crashes. This may seem like a lot, but between 2006 and 2015, there were a total of 355,655 motor vehicle deaths in the United States. Despite the fact that 480,000 school buses transport more than 25 million children on a daily basis, school bus accidents accounted for only 0.37% of vehicle accident fatalities.
While injuries are more common than fatalities, with roughly 20,000 students treated for school-bus related injuries each year, these account for only 0.45% of the 4.4 million people injured on America’s roadways each year.
Looking at the numbers, fatalities and injuries from accidents involving school buses are indeed rare. But as a parent, you care about your child, and what would happen to them if there was an accident, no matter how unlikely. How safe are buses, especially with no seat belts?
As you’ll learn below, school buses are even safer than the above figures suggest.
Pedestrians and occupants of other vehicles hit by a school bus are more likely to sustain a fatal injury than occupants inside the bus.
The size difference between a bus and a car are one of the reasons that occupants in other vehicles involved in bus crashes account for the majority of fatalities involving school buses. Occupants inside a bus generally experience less crash force than passengers in other vehicles.
From 2006 to 2015, more than 70% of people killed in a school bus crash were occupants of other vehicles. Pedestrians accounted for another 20% of school bus accident fatalities. Meanwhile, occupants inside the bus accounted for just 9% of all fatalities.
Recall that 1,313 people were killed in bus-related accidents from 2006 to 2015, accounting for 0.37% of all vehicle collision fatalities. Of that 0.37%, only 9% of those were school bus passengers. This means that only 0.033% of roadway fatalities involve the passengers of school buses—1 out of every 3,010 fatalities. Put another way, between 2006 and 2015, on average, 11 people per year died while riding a school bus. And nearly half of those fatalities were drivers.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ranks school buses as the safest vehicles on the road.
From the NHTSA website:
The school bus is the safest vehicle on the road—statistically, your child is much safer taking a bus to and from school than traveling by car… NHTSA believes school buses should be as safe as possible. That’s why our safety standards for school buses are above and beyond those for regular buses.
But what makes them so safe? After all, most school buses don’t have seat belts, a major safety feature in all passenger vehicles.
School buses are designed with seat “compartments.” These compartments absorb most of the force in the event of a crash. In today’s buses, most metal surfaces—including the side panels and windows—are covered with padding. These seat compartments, spaced just two feet apart, combined with additional padding mean buses don’t necessarily need seat belts. But some states require seat belts in school buses as an added safety measure.
In 2018, then California governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 1798, a bill that requires all school buses in California to have seat belts by July 2035. School districts must either retrofit their old buses with seat belts before 2035 or purchase new buses with seat belts. Just 7% of all California school buses had seat belts in 2007. Fast forward to 2016, and that figure rose to 54% of all school buses. California Highway Patrol estimates that 90% of school buses will have seat belts by 2025. Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas also have laws regulating seat belts in school buses.
Getting on and off the bus is more dangerous than riding the bus.
School buses are incredibly safe. So much so that children are at greater risk while entering and exiting a bus. While, tragically, 64 school bus passengers were killed in accidents between 2006 and 2015, 102 school age pedestrians were killed in school bus related accidents—either being struck by a school bus, or by another vehicle while getting on or off a bus.
The NHTSA offers tips to help your child avoid injury when they enter or exit a school bus:
Get to the bus stop early. Arrive at the bus stop at least five minutes before the bus, and show your child where to wait.
Use caution when getting on the bus. When entering the school bus, your child should wait for the bus to come to a complete stop, and wait until the bus door is fully open.
Never walk behind the bus. School buses have large blind spots. If your child must cross the street after getting off a bus, they should walk at least 15 feet in front and make eye contact before attempting to cross the street in a crosswalk. If the driver does not make eye contact, your child should wait until the bus has left.
If you want to read more about school bus safety tips, visit the NHTSA website.
School bus accidents are rare, as are school bus related injuries. In general, occupants inside the school bus are at less risk of injury than pedestrians and occupants in other vehicles. In some states, lawmakers have stepped in to mandate seat belts, which should only increase the safety of school buses.