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How Safe Is Their School Bus?

This fall, more than half of all U.S. schoolchildrenwill clamber aboard that growling, canary-colored icon of American education, the school bus. If your child is one of them, you'll be glad to know that school buses are the safest form of motorized transportation on the American road, bar none.

Mile for mile, your child is seven times safer sitting on a school bus than she is riding in your family car. That's because school buses are bigger, heavier, and sit higher off the ground than most of the things they collide with. (The vast majority of deaths in school-bus crashes occur in the other vehicle.) The buses' unmistakable yellow coloring, flashing lights, and swing-out stop signs make them highly visible to motorists. Their drivers must earn commercial driver's licenses and, in most states, receive special safety training. Even smaller school buses, which are about the size of a passenger van, must meet rigorous federal standards for everything from fuel-tank protection to seating systems and emergency exits.

While there are school-bus accidents  -- in an average year, several hundred children are seriously injured and about 35 are killed  -- these tragic numbers are small when measured against the fact that school buses log four billion miles each year.

But despite this enviable record, school-bus safety could improve. The question, critics argue, isn't, "How safe are school buses compared with other modes of transportation?" but, "Can school buses themselves be safer?" And the answer is yes.

David Ruben is a contributing editor to Parenting.

The Seat-Belt Debate

Every weekday morning, Angela Pisano watches from her porch as her two children  -- Gabriella, 7, and Christopher, 11  -- climb aboard the bus that will ferry them three miles to their Toms River, NJ, elementary school. She smiles as she sees them reach down to cinch their lap belts. "It makes me feel good knowing that the driver isn't going to move that bus until everybody is buckled in," says Pisano.

About 150 miles to the southwest, in a suburb of Baltimore, Darleen DiGirolamo performs the same ritual with her 8-year-old son, Matthew  -- except he's not donning a belt. His school bus, like most in the U.S., doesn't have any.

There is no federal mandate currently requiring seat belts for full-size school buses (although lap belts are required on smaller-model buses, since they offer less crash protection than full-size ones). Only New Jersey and New York (plus a smattering of individual school districts in other states) require lap belts on newly purchased full-size buses.

The school-bus seat-belt debate is one of the longest-running, most emotional, and least understood controversies in child safety. School-transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials argue that, if worn incorrectly, one-piece lap belts  -- the only type currently available on school buses  -- can themselves cause abdominal or neck injuries in some crashes. They also feel the belts aren't necessary, because all buses are required by law to have seats that are tall, closely spaced, padded, and slightly flexible, and are designed to absorb crash forces and to cushion riders.

It's also been suggested that younger, less dexterous children might not be able to free themselves in an emergency. And, belt critics add, even if a federal mandate were to prevent some injuries, the number would be so small that the cost of installing the belts  -- about $1,500 per bus, plus maintenance  -- would be better spent on improving safety around the outside of the bus, where most fatalities occur (see "The Danger Zone," following).

Belt advocates counter that while the current seat design may help protect kids in a frontal collision that jerks them directly into the seat in front of them, it's of little use if the bus is hit from the side or rolls over. (Estimates of how effective seat belts are in these and other crashes vary because, even with few belts in use, there are relatively few deaths or serious injuries inside school buses to study.) Advocates also argue that belt use in buses would boost their use in cars, where the mortality rate among unbuckled children remains high  -- a big reason the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and several other physician groups support mandating lap belts on newly purchased school buses.

Other advocates have argued for a three-point belt system similar to lap-shoulder belts in cars, which even some lap-belt opponents concede could improve school-bus safety. But the chances of such a system being installed are slim, as it would require a complete redesign of the buses and seats used today, which would make it very costly. Since both sides agree that a three-point system is not currently the most practical option, bus manufacturers aren't likely to commit such sizable resources without a mandate from Washington. And without widespread pressure from parents, the federal government is unlikely to push for change.

The Van Threat

The latest controversy surrounding school-bus safety isn't about seat belts but rather the large passenger vans that budget-pinched districts are increasingly using as alternatives to higher-priced school buses. Vans are also more attractive to some school systems because, unlike federally approved school buses, they can be driven by someone without a commercial license or special training, such as a coach or a teacher.

According to an often-ignored federal law, these vans, which do not conform to federal requirements for school buses (they generally don't have emergency exits, extra mirrors, flashing lights, or stop-arms, and don't meet structural standards), cannot be sold by dealers to schools to transport children. The mandate doesn't cover after-school programs, daycare centers, or day camps, which also use these vans. To further complicate the issue, many states explicitly allow schools to use such vans, in direct contradiction to the federal ban on sales.

Since these vans are sometimes painted yellow or fitted with flashing lights or other features to resemble federally approved school buses, the best way to tell if your child is on a school bus that meets federal safety standards is to look for a certification sticker on the doorjamb or the header above the windshield (usually on the driver's side) that identifies it as a school bus. Vans that aren't school buses will simply be labeled "bus" or will even explicitly warn "not a school bus." If you're not sure, ask the district official in charge of school transportation (your school should have his name).

Although vans are tougher in crashes than passenger cars are  -- like buses, they're bigger, heavier, and sit higher off the ground  -- they're nowhere near as safe as a full-size or smaller-model school bus. Just ask Lisa Strebler. Her 6-year-old son, Jacob, was killed in 1994 when a tractor trailer ran a red light and smashed into the side of the van in which he and eight of his Columbia, SC, private-school classmates were riding. Accident-reconstruction experts hired by Strebler say they found what Strebler suspected: Had Jacob been in a school bus, he probably wouldn't have died.

"His death was preventable," Strebler says. "It didn't just happen because someone ran a red light. It happened because he was on a van when he should have been on a bus."

Strebler  -- who sued the trucking company, the school, and the van dealer and settled out of court  -- is using some of the settlement money to publicize her case against nonconforming passenger vans. She's already had an impact: The NHTSA, which for years had done little to enforce the ban on sales of such vans to schools, has recently begun to fine dealers who break the law. (Schools aren't technically liable, since the mandate is written to make the sale, not use, of these vans illegal.) Strebler is urging parents to get involved. "If you know of a dealership selling vans to schools or of a van being used by a school, pick up the phone and call the NHTSA's auto-safety hot line at 800-424-9393," she says. "I want Jake to be the last child in America who dies in one of these vehicles."

Entrusting your child to a school bus isn't easy. But it helps to keep in mind that with or without seat belts, school buses that meet federal regulations are still the safest way to transport children. And while the installation of seat belts on buses is certainly worth further consideration, parents should keep the matter in perspective with the other pressing issues that affect children's safety, from drunks on our roads to the matches on coffee tables to the guns in the closets. These dangers, which we can work individually and collectively to alleviate, pose a far greater threat to our children.

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