Sometimes reflecting on the past can help us assess the present. In other words, looking back at where we were gives us a good perspective on where we are now.
That proves to be true in the realm of school bus safety. A prime example is the national school bus loading and unloading fatality statistics, which are collected annually by the Kansas State Department of Education’s (KSDOE’s) School Bus Safety Unit.
As we reported recently (see January issue, pg. 8), the latest loading/unloading report from the KSDOE shows that four students were killed in school bus danger zone incidents in the U.S. during the 2014-15 school year. That total, as we reported, is the lowest in the 45 years on record. Which begs the question: What is the highest total on record?
The loading/unloading report has been compiled annually by the KSDOE, and previously by the Kansas State Department of Transportation, since 1970. Looking back on the fatality data collected in that first year is quite sobering.
In the 1970-71 school year, a total of 75 students were killed in school bus loading and unloading incidents. That’s right: 75. Thirty of those students were struck by their own school bus, and the other 45 were hit by a passing vehicle.
The staggering number of fatalities in the 1970-71 school year is, in fact, the highest total on record, but it wasn’t an anomaly at the time. The next year, 62 students were killed in the danger zone. Then 58 were killed. Then 73.
Fortunately, over the following decades, the annual number of school bus loading/unloading deaths decreased steadily, first dropping to a single digit (nine) in the year 2000.
Most likely, numerous factors contributed to the decline in these fatalities over the decades. A few prominent examples are improvements in driver training, the addition of more mirrors on school buses, a federal requirement for stop arms on all new school buses in 1992, and increased implementation of crossing arms to keep children from walking too close to the front of the bus.
But perhaps the biggest catalyst for change was awareness of the problem. The Kansas loading/unloading report showed that dozens of children across the country were being killed outside of their school buses every year. For pupil transportation leaders at the time, that news must have been like a punch in the gut — and a clarion call to improve safety for school bus riders.
The introduction to the annual KSDOE report includes this note, which speaks to the important role it has played over the years: “[The survey] points out the continuing need for forceful, advanced instruction to school bus drivers and students, as well as the need to increase our efforts to thoroughly inform the driving public about the requirements of the school bus stop law.”
The drastic decrease from 75 loading/unloading fatalities in 1970-71 to four fatalities in 2014-15 is a remarkable success story for the school bus industry. And yet four fatalities is still four too many. There is no room for complacency in this business.
Efforts to bring that number down to zero must continue. Training is a vital part of the mission, and technological developments may also help (stop-arm cameras, pedestrian detection systems, etc.). The pupil transportation community must also keep promoting awareness of the dangers around school buses.