New Focus on Safety in the Next Millennium?

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on August 1, 1999

The notion that school buses are among the safest vehicles on the highway is a dangerous one. It breeds complacency. It tempts school transportation supervisors to place their safety and training programs on cruise control. Moreover, it’s an illusion. Statistically, school buses are safer than other vehicles, especially when you only consider fatality data, but the reality is that even the best operations are only one false move away from another Fox River Grove, Ill., Carrollton, Ky., or Alton, Texas. The industry prides itself on its safety record, as it should. But more can be done to protect the lives of school bus passengers. As we enter the 21st century, we should take some time to scrutinize ways to bolster the safety of school transportation.

How safe are we?
The first step is to determine how safe school buses actually are. We know that very few fatalities are recorded on school buses. On average, there are about 10 school bus occupants killed each year. When you consider that 23.5 million children ride 440,000 public school buses to and from school and school-related activities each school day, that’s an incredibly low number of deaths on the bus. The number of children killed outside the school bus is higher, approximately 23 per year over the past decade. Even that number, however, is extraordinarily low, all things considered. And, during the 1997-98 school year, only 10 children were killed outside the bus. Collection of standardized injury data on a state-by-state basis has yet to be implemented, however. Two agencies — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Safety Council (NSC) — publish school bus injury statistics. NHTSA uses what it calls the General Estimates Systems to estimate the number and severity of injuries in school bus crashes. This system relies on a sampling of crash reports collected from local police agencies. Charlie Hott, NHTSA’s school bus engineer, says his agency would like to establish a national uniform data collection system but admits that it would be “terribly expensive.” Nor does NHTSA have the authority to set up such a system, Hott says. In the wake of complaints about the accuracy of its data, the National Safety Council has abandoned its efforts to collect school bus injury statistics. The council received data from approximately 30 states and extrapolated to achieve national figures. The problem is that each state has different criteria for what constitutes a reportable injury. Even if the NSC collected data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, its numbers would be meaningless unless state officials agreed upon a uniform definition of a school bus injury. To that end, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) is trying to institute a uniform data collection system that will gather a wide range of information, including accident and injury statistics. A sample questionnaire was distributed at the association’s annual conference last November. Some NASDPTS members objected to the length and breadth of the survey. However, unless the industry agrees to devote the time and resources necessary to gather uniform injury information, it likely will not be able to track improvements or declines in school bus safety. Ultimately, there are only two basic areas in which safety can be improved — man and machine. Man, if we can still use this term so late in the 20th century, includes everyone involved in school bus transportation: supervisors, drivers, mechanics, passengers, parents, teachers, principals and, especially, motorists who share the road with school buses. Machine, a much safer term, encompasses the vehicle and its safety components, highway and rail signaling equipment and communication and tracking systems.

What people can do
Let’s start with how “human systems” can be developed to improve school bus safety. From a hierarchical perspective, school board members have the broadest power to influence school bus safety. They decide whether transportation will be provided and how it will be provided. These two decisions form the basis for everything else that follows. Recent decisions by school boards have not been encouraging in regards to whether school transportation will be provided. The trend in the last decade has been to curtail transportation, either through elimination or reduction of busing. This is an ominous development for obvious reasons. Children who walk, ride bicycles, use public transit, drive themselves or ride with their parents or friends to and from school are not as safe as children who ride school buses. Any efforts to keep children on school buses aid in the battle for safe transportation. One strategy is to contain the costs of your program. A lean, efficient operation is less likely to be targeted for cuts or elimination.

Attitude counts
On a day-to-day level, the transportation supervisor is the central figure in the safety hierarchy. Reminding staff members that safe transportation is the top priority is an essential duty. That doesn’t mean that supervisors need to give pep talks every day, but they should emphasize that safety is the bottom line — in actions as well as words. Providing superior driver training, for trainees as well as veterans, is the single most effective action that a transportation supervisor can take. With the increase in discipline problems in the classroom and aboard the school bus, drivers need to have effective training in behavior management and crisis prevention. Buses with rowdy passengers jeopardize the safety of everyone around them, including pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists. Any distraction to the driver compromises the overall safety of the bus and its passengers. Supervisors should consider tapping school district resources for help with behavior management. Teachers, both in regular and special education, as well as principals can be extremely helpful in explaining the behavior of students who continually disrupt the bus. More importantly, they can offer tips to drivers on how to handle these difficult students.

Drivers are key link
On the front lines, drivers are the final extension of the safety program. Even if every other link in the operation is solid, a weak crew of drivers can compromise safety. That’s why it’s so critical that your hiring practices are in good shape. With the driver shortage showing no signs of easing, it’s difficult to maintain a full complement. This creates a dilemma: Managers can maintain their hiring standards and operate with a shortage, which is a safety concern because other staff are forced to drive, or take a chance on some questionable prospects. What needs to be done by the industry is to professionalize the school bus driver’s position. The transit industry, with its generally higher pay and full-time employment, has much less trouble finding and keeping drivers. Perhaps the national pupil transportation associations should create a task force to address this critical issue. A second adult on the bus adds to the safety level. The use of attendants could become increasingly prevalent in the next century, depending on the availability of funding. School districts that have cut back on the use of aides have noted some erosion of civility aboard those buses, but other districts say that cutting aides from buses has not affected student behavior.

Target road rage
In addition to behavior management problems aboard the bus, there are similar issues outside the bus. Specifically, bus drivers need to be trained to deal with road rage, which seems to be on the rise nationwide. The yellow school bus seems to be a favorite target of angry motorists because it’s big and slow and often holds up traffic during loading and unloading of students. Finally, getting parents involved in the transportation process will be a significant challenge in the next century. Drivers should be encouraged to make regular contact with parents. Many school districts are encouraging drivers to call parents when there’s a behavior problem. Training in phone contact can be helpful in teaching drivers the proper technique. Parent surveys will be used more extensively in the next few years. The data and comments collected in these surveys certainly can help to improve the safety of an operation. For example, these surveys could allow parents to identify buses that are traveling too fast through neighborhood streets or arrive early at the bus stop (a dangerous practice). Currently, parent surveys can be costly to distribute, and analyzing the results can be time-consuming, but improvements in technology should help to solve that problem. Instead of mailing questionnaires to parents, transportation directors will soon be able to post them on the Internet. This will not only boost the response rate, but it will allow for computerized tallying of the results. Student training cannot be ignored when it comes to safety. Many school districts require classroom instruction on the rules of riding the school bus. Some districts use “Buster the Bus,” a motorized toy bus that can “talk,” to teach young children about school bus safety. Other programs use puppet shows to entertain and educate children. The industry should continue to challenge itself to find innovative ways to teach children about the dangers in and around the school bus, especially in light of the fact that the number of deaths in the loading/unloading zone typically outstrips deaths on the bus. The final human factor involves the motorists who share the road with school buses. They play a significant but often overlooked role in school bus safety. Illegal pass-bys of stopped school buses seem to be on the rise. More needs to be done to educate the public about the dangers of these traffic violations. Transportation managers need to exploit the media. Local newspapers and radio and television stations can help to deliver the message about this dangerous and illegal practice. A good time to alert the media is in the fall, but it’s not a bad idea to seek coverage during the middle of the school year as well. Many school districts and contractors have websites that can also be used to spread the word about illegal-bys. Posting a special notice about red-light violations will help to educate parents about their responsibilities as motorists.

What machines can do
Although people have the greatest impact, positive or negative, on school bus safety, equipment is also a critical factor. School buses, especially the large ones, are inherently safe because of their weight and profile. Except for large trucks, buses outweigh almost every vehicle on the road. Rarely will a school bus be the loser in a traffic collision. However, collisions between school buses and large trucks seem to have increased in the past few years. In some cases, the bus has come out second best, with passengers suffering severe injuries or death. These accidents prompted the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to study the crashworthiness of school buses. Its report, which may suggest that school buses be equipped with some form of active restraint, was due out in August and was not available at press time. To address the issue of passenger safety on school buses, NHTSA is halfway through a two-year research plan to devise the “next generation” of crash protection. This is the first time since 1977, when compartmentalized seating was implemented on all new buses, that NHTSA has seriously considered improving upon compartmentalization. It’s too soon to speculate on the outcome of NHTSA’s project. Upgrades to crash protection could include simple modifications to compartmentalization, such as padded sidewalls and ceilings, or complicated innovations such as three-point restraints requiring redesigned seats. We’ll have to wait and see. Automatic vehicle location technology, using global positioning satellites or land-based tracking systems, could make an impression on the industry in the next century. It will allow supervisors to track their buses in real time, a definite operational boost and also a safety consideration.

Putting sensors to work
Automatic braking systems could help to prevent children from being run over by the bus. The braking sensors can be placed along the bumpers and in front of the wheels. The Checkmate system marketed by Specialty Mfg. in Pineville, N.C., also allows for sensors to be placed in the service door, which can automatically stop the bus if a student’s clothing or book bag gets snagged. To reduce the incidence of motorists passing stopped school buses, video cameras or stop-action cameras increasingly will be used to record stop-arm violations. In North Carolina, a Silent Witness video system was installed on buses in Onslow County to document the activities of passing motorists. Although the cameras could not capture license plate numbers, the footage they provided helped convince local police that a problem existed. “It helped make the case with law enforcement, who were skeptical because some drivers had previously reported false violations,” says Derek Graham, North Carolina’s pupil transportation director in the Department of Public Instruction. Other safety innovations are coming down the line. Interlock devices will prevent students from being able to release the parking brake. LED lighting systems are making an impact in stop arms and could become more prevalent in brake lights and even warning lights. Remote-control mirror systems help drivers make the proper adjustments without leaving their seats. All of these devices and systems add to the overall safety of the school bus. But we need to remember that ultimately it’s the driver who’s responsible for the safety of the passengers. Proper training — and retraining — is critical. Drivers need to be constantly monitored for ASK (attitude, skills and knowledge). A deficit in any of these areas can lead to tragedy. With its sterling record in safety, this school bus industry can’t let down its guard, not for the few months remaining in this century and not anytime in the next millennium.

Related Topics: NHTSA, school bus crash

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