School transportation is almost universally acclaimed as the safest mode of transportation in America, if not the world. Without doubt, based on federal statistics, we’re the gold standard for reliably safe ground transportation.
The majority of motor vehicle crashes are not a failure of safety systems built into buses and other vehicles, but human error. That’s why as an industry, we’re never complacent. We train our people well and often. We inspect and maintain our equipment. We evaluate and explore new technology and new ideas that might make our safe record even safer.
School buses themselves meet more Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) than any other vehicle — 37 in all. Because school buses are large and built to withstand most crash forces, fatal injuries to school bus occupants are unusual. When they happen, everyone in the industry shares in the anguish. Our children and grandchildren also ride yellow school buses.
So when tragedies occur, we commit to learning what caused the crash, and what could prevent another, similar one.
Case in point: The horrific Feb. 16 crash in Chesterfield, N.J., where a family with 11-year-old triplet daughters riding on the same bus had their world shattered when a dump truck smashed into the bus, ramming it into a utility pole.
One of the triplets died at the scene, and her two sisters were critically injured. One other student was injured seriously, and 14 suffered mostly minor injuries.
The crash immediately drew the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the nation’s primo transportation investigative body that painstakingly reconstructs crashes to get at answers and eventually make recommendations for safety improvements.
The Chesterfield crash is of special interest to NTSB because despite no federal requirement for safety belts in large school buses, some states have decided to require them anyway; in fact, New Jersey was the second state that required belts to be installed on large school buses. Only four others have followed suit since.
It’s not yet known whether the children injured in the Chesterfield crash were buckled up, but this key information will be gleaned by the NTSB investigation, and the nature of the injuries analyzed carefully. This will help NTSB determine whether the vehicle’s safety belts protected more children from injury, contributed to injuries or perhaps had no measurable effect.
Why is this important?
Because in 2010 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) declined to mandate or even recommend lap-shoulder belts for large school buses. In fact, NHTSA suggested instead that states might better use available funding doing other things to promote safer pupil transportation, such as improving the safety of pedestrians around school buses, because more fatalities involve child pedestrians than school bus occupants.
By the same token, NTSB’s recommendations are always very powerful because of the board’s stellar reputation for thorough analysis and fact-driven conclusions. Remember, however, that NTSB makes recommendations but cannot order any safety correction. Their recommendations must be embraced by the affected stakeholders to have any real effect. The results of their work in Chesterfield will therefore be interesting and impactful, even if not determinative.
NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart has already agreed to speak at the NAPT Summit in Memphis, Tenn., in October. He will share with us his thoughts about transportation safety generally and yellow transportation specifically. Hopefully by then he will be able to share the results from the Chesterfield crash investigation.
An attorney and pilot with commercial multi-engine and instrument ratings, Hart served in the early 1990s as an NTSB board member and then as deputy administrator of NHTSA. Subsequently, he was assistant administrator for system safety and later deputy director for air traffic safety oversight at the Federal Aviation Administration. Then the president appointed Hart to another term on the NTSB, and he was named vice chairman.
He’s experienced on both sides of the safety policy fence — investigating and recommending safety improvements, and implementing them in federal transportation agencies — making him one of the most experienced and knowledgeable professionals on the national transportation scene.
The question of whether to install seat belts on large school buses has been an emotional, contentious issue for a very long time. School bus professionals with a particular interest in this issue should not miss Hart’s presentation in Memphis this October. When he talks, everyone should be listening carefully.
Mike Martin is executive director of NAPT. Barry McCahill is president of McCahill Communications Inc. and NAPT public affairs consultant.