School Buses Are Typically Much Safer Than Cars

School bus fatalities are rare compared to the number of deaths on America's highways

Deaths from school bus crashes like the tragedy in New Jersey on Thursday are rare, accounting for less than one percent of the country's yearly motor vehicle fatalities, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

School buses are the most regulated vehicles on the road, and students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely aboard a bus than in a car, according to the administration. The buses are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles.

From 2007 to 2016, there were 320,874 fatal motor vehicle crashes, of which 1,147 or 0.4 percent were school-transportation-related, data from the National Center for Statistics and Analysis show.

On Thursday, a school bus collided with a dump truck on Interstate 80 in New Jersey, causing deaths. 

The accident, in Mount Olive Township, ripped the undercarriage off the bus from East Brook Middle School in Paramus, and left it on its side in the median. Information on other injuries wasn’t immediately available although the nearby Morristown Medical Center confirmed that it was receiving patients.

The public school has about 650 students in the fifth through eighth grades.

School-transportation related crashes — defined as involving a school bus or another bus functioning as one — killed 1,282 people of all ages from 2007 to 2016, according to a January 2018 report from National Center for Statistics and Analysis. That’s an average of 128 fatalities each year.

Of the 281 school-aged children who were killed, 58 were in school transportation vehicles, 116 were in other vehicles, 98 were pedestrians, eight were bicyclists and one was another non-occupant.

Among the safety features that school buses provide: flashing red lights, rollover protection, protective seating, high crush standards and stop-sign arms. 

One of the major debates over the years has been whether school buses should be required to have seat belts. 

In New Jersey, all vehicles manufactured after October 1992 must be equipped with lap-type seat belts or other child restraint systems, according to the state. All school buses without seat belts that were grandfathered under the law have been out of service as of September 2013.

But there is no similar federal requirement. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says that large school buses are designed with a different kind of safety restraint system that works "extremely well." 

Children are protected through what is known as "compartmentalization," or strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs, according to the administration. Smaller school buses must have lap belts, shoulder belts or both.

Though fatal school bus accidents are uncommon, these are some of the deadliest over the years:

Nov. 21, 2016: A school bus driver in Chattanooga, Tennessee, ran the bus off a winding road, hit a pole and flipped into a tree, killing six children. The driver, who authorities said was on his phone and driving 50 miles an hour on the narrow road, was found guilty of numerous charges, including criminally negligent homicide, according to NBC News.

Sept. 21, 1989: A Dr. Pepper delivery truck collided with a school bus carrying junior high and high school students in Alton, Texas. Twenty-one students between the ages of 12 and 18 died when the bus went over an embankment and into a gravel pit filled with water. The driver, who according to the Houston Chronicle, missed a stop sign, was later acquitted of criminally negligent homicide charges.

May 21, 1976: A bus carrying a high school a cappella choir from Yuba City High School in the Sacramento Valley broke through a guardrail on a freeway off-ramp near Martinez, California, fell 30 feet and landed upside down with the roof crushed. Twenty-eight students and an adult chaperone were killed. The students were traveling to Miranda High School in Orinda, California, for a performance.

Feb. 28, 1958: A bus taking elementary and high school students to a school in Prestonburg, Kentucky, hit the back of a truck on U.S. Route 23, went down an embankment into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River and was swept away. Twenty-six students and the bus driver drowned.

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