NAPT's SBIC still industry sentinel
Several recent school bus crashes have led to a flurry of activity at the School Bus Information Clearinghouse (SBIC; www.schoolbusinfo.org). NAPT (www.napt.org) created SBIC, formerly called the School Bus Information Council, in 1998 as an open source of information about school buses.
SBIC uses a Website stocked with the latest industry data and a toll-free phone hotline to provide reporters, state offi cials and consumers with information about school buses seven days a week, 365 days a year.
SBIC also has a “School Bus Fact Sheet” that is sent to major news outlets where a serious incident or crash occurs so that reporters have the background information they need to write in a balanced way about the school bus industry and its performance.
In addition to working with the media, SBIC can also help school transportation service providers respond to emergency situations. We try to give callers helpful advice that is very bottom line and plain English. It should be an essential phone call to help deal effectively with a difficult situation — (888) FOR-SBIC (367-7242).
For example, if there has been a school bus crash and children have been injured or killed, emotions will be running high. Parents will be wondering why there are no seat belts on school buses and likely have other questions. The media will demand answers.
Most spokespeople respond by saying there are no safety belts because they cost too much, or there is no budget for them. However, this is usually not true, and chances are the issue hasn’t even been evaluated locally.
So why is this a common refrain? Because under pressure, most people don’t know what else to say. The questions stem from an emotional circumstance, and it’s human nature to want to “do something” when a tragedy occurs. But it doesn’t help anyone to provide misinformation.
So what should you say? Here are some suggested responses often used by SBIC that are more appropriate when a tragedy occurs and a media cycle is running:
First, it is very important for people to know that school bus professionals across America begin every school day trying to ensure the highest level of safety for all children in their care. Second, please remember that school transportation professionals are also parents and grandparents, which means they are grieving along with everyone else where the incident occurred.
It’s important to give the police and other professional law enforcement agencies time to thoroughly investigate the circumstances of any crash. It’s their job to objectively ascertain and evaluate what happened. Afterwards, we can all have a fact-based discussion on what — if anything — might prevent a similar occurrence.
School buses are inherently safer than passenger cars. For that reason, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided many years ago to, instead of putting belts in buses, use another approach: high-backed, well-padded, closely-spaced seats that provide excellent “automatic” protection in most crashes. The safety record over many decades with this approach has been the best in the transportation industry.
Important: The school transportation industry is not opposed to the installation of safety belts or any other safety approach that can be shown through fact-based science that it would improve the safety of children riding in school buses. But because the safety of our children is at issue, and because large school buses already provide an extraordinarily safe environment for riders, many people cannot support any proposed safety measure that is not grounded in scientifically validated tests, studies and analyses.
This is why the largest trade association in the school bus industry — NAPT — formally petitioned NHTSA over a year ago, demanding them to perform the testing and research necessary to determine whether its past decisions on school bus safety need to be reevaluated, and whether frequently-touted safety measures, such as the installation of lap-shoulder belts, actually would improve safety. NHTSA is still deciding what to recommend.
In the meantime, we need to be mindful that seat belts are not a panacea. There is little evidence that shows seat belts would dramatically improve school bus safety. In fact, there is evidence that in some crashes, they could actually do more harm than good.
The addition of a new proposed safety feature — like seat belts — may have the unintended consequence of reducing the overall safety of school buses in a variety of circumstances, including emergency evacuations (which occur far more often than injury- or death-producing crashes); side-impact crashes or rollovers; and by reducing the student capacity of a school bus, forcing children to get to school by some other, less-safe means.
Again, if you need advice when a crash or other serious school bus-related incident occurs in your community, immediately call SBIC’s toll-free number — (888) FOR-SBIC (367-7242). We will be glad to try to help you.
Mike Martin is executive director of NAPT. Barry McCahill is president of McCahill Communications Inc. in Eagle, Idaho, the former director of communications for NHTSA, and has been a strategic communications advisor for NAPT for the last 10 years.