Seeking perfection is the goal of both types of buses

Steve Sprague
Posted on February 1, 2002

Which is safer, motorcoach or school bus? This question deserves either no response, or it deserves a complex answer. Both are possible and valid responses. What may not be obvious is that it’s a trick question. The safe transportation of students - or more precisely, children - has reached the level of “obsession” in America. Whether it’s the proper construction, installation and use of child seats in automobiles or the quest for perfection of bus design, there will clearly be no rest until we’ve reached the “zero deaths, zero injuries” pinnacle. Perfection is a tough, if not impossible, goal, but our drive for it has led to improvements in vehicle design, in a much higher level of passenger and caretaker diligence and in the reduction of death and serious injury in all student travel. Those are good things. Still higher expectations
There’s another side of our past success, though. As we approach the elusive goal of perfection, the expectations of ultimate achievement increase. Our focus on the causes of fatal injury narrows. Little issues are magnified well beyond normal perspective. The question of comparative safety between motorcoaches and school buses has developed in this tunnel. In reality, if there’s a question here that needs to be answered, it might more appropriately be, “Which vehicle is closest to perfection?” In a 1999 study, a group of some of the best highway safety experts in the world - the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) - classified school buses and motorcoaches as “two of the safest forms of transportation in the United States.” Annual passenger fatality numbers for both vehicles rarely, if ever, even reach double digits, let alone approach the 40,000-plus yearly death toll in passenger cars. While there are many statistical sources, we rely most heavily on the opinions of the NTSB for two reasons. The first is that, for most reporting agencies (National Safety Council, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, state and local law enforcement, etc.), a “bus” is just a “bus.” The National Governors’ Association (NGA) roadside accident reporting form, which is used by virtually all highway enforcement agencies in America, lists 11 different body styles for trucks, but it lists only one category for passenger carriers: “bus.” The distinction between “school bus,” “transit bus” or “motorcoach” is apparently inconsequential to the NGA, but the NTSB, because it investigates virtually every fatal bus accident, makes a very clear distinction in body styles and because of that, provides the most illuminating information. The second reason we rely on the NTSB is the agency’s proven investigative skills. Its entire mission is to analyze fatal crashes and to tell us how to avoid repeating the causes of those fatalities. It’s a job NTSB investigators do very well, despite the gruesome process. In its 1999 report (available online at, the NTSB found that, despite the differences in their construction, both school buses and motorcoaches enjoy the benefits of large size (mass), and that they both employ “compartmentalization” to protect passengers in the most statistically probable crash circumstances. And, while applauding both vehicle styles for their safety record and protective qualities, the safety board recommended that both vehicles be subjected to compartment redesign to improve passenger securement systems. NTSB won’t crown a winner
The safety board refuses, however, to address the question of “which vehicle is more safe.” In a letter to the United Motorcoach Association (UMA) dated Dec. 20, 2001, Board Chair Marion Blakey said, “The board did not conduct a relative safety comparison between school buses and motorcoaches. The safety board believes that such a comparison would be extraordinarily difficult. “Each year, few (less than 30) school bus passengers and motorcoach passengers are fatally injured in crashes ... These exceptionally small fatality numbers for school buses and motorcoaches do not permit conclusive statistical comparisons. Furthermore, the dynamic design characteristics of the two types of vehicles are significantly different. School buses are designed to transport children to and from school and school-related activities; motorcoaches are primarily designed to transport passengers, including students, on longer trips that involve interstate and high speed conditions,” Blakey said. Motorcoaches not excluded
Focusing on the design differences and the disputes that seem to have grown from those differences, Blakey said, “Neither the bus crashworthiness report nor the board report ‘Pupil Transportation in Vehicles not Meeting Federal School Standards’ were intended to exclude motorcoaches from all student transportation activities. Rather, the board believes that motorcoaches play an important role in student transportation when they are used for their designed purpose, particularly longer trips on high-speed roadways.” (The complete letter can be found on the web at In other words, don’t expect your stock Honda Civic to protect you at Indy 500 speeds and don’t expect your 22-inch-high Formula One racer to protect you on the streets with trash trucks. Bottom line: highway safety is relative to common sense. When it comes to the care of “America’s most precious cargo,” the goal for both transportation segments will, and should always be, absolute perfection - zero deaths and zero injuries, every year. Useless and distracting debates on trick questions will only stall us on the path to that goal. We can’t afford the delay.

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