Parents need to know about the relative risks

Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher
Posted on August 1, 2002

Riding a school bus is the safest way for children to get to and from school. That's not headline news for the vast majority of people in this industry, but many newspapers published articles focusing on that fact after the Transportation Research Board (TRB) released its comprehensive study of the relative risks of school travel. (For more details, see the story in Industry News) The study compares the injury and fatality rates of six modes of school travel: 1. riding the school bus; 2. riding another type of bus; 3. walking; 4. bicycling; 5. riding in a car with an adult driver; and 6. riding in a car with a teen driver Fatality stats tell the story
The TRB's lengthy report provides a wide-angle view of the relative safety of each of these modes. It tells us that each year approximately 800 U.S. schoolchildren are killed in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours. Of those fatalities, only 2 percent involve a school bus. Meanwhile, more than half of the fatalities (54 percent) involve a teenager driving a passenger vehicle. Another 20 percent of the student deaths involve a passenger vehicle driven by an adult. Bicycling and walking were also studied. Fatalities for bicyclists averaged about 6 percent, while pedestrian deaths made up about 16 percent of the total. What do these percentages tell us? On first blush, they suggest that school buses are an extremely safe mode of school travel. Which they are. More importantly, they tell us that teenagers driving themselves or riding with friends are taking the biggest risk, relatively speaking. In fact, on a fatality-per-million-mile basis, school buses are 24 times safer than passenger vehicles driven by teenagers. Using the same basis for comparison, school buses are three times safer than a passenger car driven by an adult, 122 times safer than bicycles and 87 times safer than walking. The only other mode that compares favorably is "other buses" (transit buses, mainly). That's encouraging because budget cuts are forcing some school districts to reduce their service levels. If transit agencies are bridging the gap, it's nice to know that the fatality rates are comparable to school buses. Of course, there are other safety issues with students riding transit buses, but that's a discussion for another time. Let's spread the word
Now that we have it, what do we do with the information from the TRB study? First, we should feel encouraged that school buses have been validated as the safest mode of school travel, but we need to build a network of disciples who understand this as we do. Parents, administrators, lawmakers and, of course, students need to make informed decisions about school travel. To that end, transportation managers need to spread the word to the schools they serve about the relative safety of school buses. And, in turn, schools need to get the word to parents. The tough part will be the final step: parents persuading their sons and daughters to consider the school bus as their first travel option. Even if they agree to ride the bus just a couple of days a week, teenagers will lower their relative risk of injury or death significantly. For students who aren't eligible to ride the bus, schools need to look closely at risk-reducing measures, such as enforcing bicycle helmet laws and improving traffic control around school sites. The numbers tell a story. We need to do the same.

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