NHTSA Administrator David Strickland (at podium) speaks at a “Click It or Ticket” event last year. At right is U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
When David Strickland spoke to state pupil transportation directors at their conference last year, he used a term that seemed to resonate with the audience: “the humble yellow school bus.”
While the yellow bus may indeed be a modest and utilitarian form of transportation, Strickland, the 14th administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has made efforts to raise its profile and champion its successes.
On his watch, NHTSA has publicly supported the safety record of the school bus and has launched a campaign to promote school bus ridership.
Strickland discussed these and other pertinent topics in an exclusive interview with SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon.
Last fall, NHTSA unveiled a series of posters that detail the benefits of school bus transportation.
The three posters (which are available here) show parents with their kids next to a school bus silhouette and the header “My choice … their ride.” Each one has an eye-catching chart and facts on why parents should choose the school bus over other modes of transportation for their kids.
“Students are about 50 times more likely to arrive at school alive if they take the bus than if they drive themselves or ride with friends,” one of the posters declares.
Another poster describes the many safety features of school buses, while the other focuses on the environmental and traffic benefits of opting for the yellow bus.
Strickland told SBF that the materials have been very effective in spreading their message.
“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of press — almost 200 articles as of this past February, and a number of other radio impressions,” he said, noting that the goal is to make the impression on parents that the school bus is the safest way for their children to get to and from school.
Seat belt decision
NHTSA supported that safety contention last year when the Center for Auto Safety and other entities petitioned the agency to mandate three-point seat belts for all school buses. (They are federally required only on school buses weighing 10,000 pounds or less.)
NHTSA denied the petition, explaining that “for large school buses, we have determined there is not a safety problem warranting national action to require the addition of lap-shoulder belts to these vehicles. Large school buses are very safe due to their greater weight and higher seating height than most other vehicles, high visibility to motorists, and occupant protection through compartmentalization.”
Strickland said that NHTSA is constantly questioned about why it has not required belts on large school buses, but he reaffirmed that “the agency made the right decision in denying that petition.”
At last year’s conference of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, Strickland touted the safety and environmental benefits of the “humble yellow school bus,” as he called it.
The administrator pointed to NHTSA’s analysis of the possible consequences of a national requirement for seat belts on large school buses. It found that such a requirement would increase the cost to purchase and operate the vehicles, which could reduce the overall availability and ridership of school buses.
Under those conditions, the agency estimated that the increased risk from students finding alternative, less-safe means of getting to and from school could result in an increase of 10 to 19 school transportation fatalities annually.
But Strickland noted that not all school districts and communities are equal — some do have the resources to equip their buses with belts without reducing service.
“If there is a community that can afford to maintain their school buses with belts, they are free to do so,” he said. “Because, ultimately, for us the question is safety. We want to keep the biggest number of buses on the road as possible. And we can talk about the margin of improvement after that.”
In March, Strickland again publicly defended the yellow bus. In testimony during a House subcommittee hearing on motor vehicle safety provisions in House and Senate highway bills, the NHTSA administrator was questioned about school bus safety.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina mentioned an “awful, awful” bus crash that occurred in his district some 25 years ago in which all of the children on board were killed, he said.
Butterfield said he had just learned that school buses don’t fit within the definition of motorcoaches. NHTSA is developing a final rule that will require lap-shoulder belts on motorcoaches, and the congressman asked Strickland about whether such equipment should be included on school buses.