About 20.5 million elementary and secondary school-aged kids in the United States ride school buses to and from school each day. And when something goes wrong — a crash, a reckless driver — it tends to make major news headlines. Whether their kids are commuting to school daily via bus or just riding in one occasionally as transport for field trips, school-affiliated sporting events and the like, parents may have safety concerns. But are these vehicles actually more dangerous than other vehicles on the road? Here's what experts say.
What does the research say about school bus safety and risks?
First, it's important to distinguish school buses from other forms of transportation that might be carrying students. This month, many reports about an Ohio crash that killed six people, including three teen students, initially referred to the vehicle transporting students and chaperones to a school board associations conference as a “school bus.” But experts say that's not accurate; it was actually a chartered motorcoach, not a school bus — which makes a difference “in safety regulations, training and protocols,” Adnan Hyder, director of the Center on Commercial Determinants of Health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Life. “[School buses] are typically operated by professional drivers with training and certification in handling large vehicles and managing student passengers.”
Hyder adds that “safety in school buses is prioritized through design features such as highly padded seat backs, reinforced sides and bright colors for better visibility.”
What do the numbers say? Data from the most recent report from the National Safety Council (NSC) found that there were 108 people killed nationwide in school bus-related crashes in 2021. Additionally, data from 2012 to 2021 shows that only 5% of deaths in school bus-related crashes were bus passengers, while 70% of deaths in these crashes were people in other cars. The same data shows that of those injured in school bus crashes, 30% were bus passengers while 53% were people riding in other vehicles. In other words, you’re far less likely to be injured if you’re on the school bus.
Do I need to worry?
On the whole, safety experts sound confident about school bus safety. “School buses are the most regulated vehicles on the road,” a spokesperson from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says in a statement to Yahoo Life. “They’re designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in preventing crashes and injuries.”
“School buses are the safest mode of ground transportation in the United States,” adds Jane Terry, vice president of government affairs at the NSC. “I send my children to school on the bus because I know their safety record.”
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) credits the school buses' seat design — featuring an “energy-absorbing” steel structure and padded seat backs, which work to compartmentalize passengers akin to eggs in a carton — with helping to prevent serious injuries in the event of an accident, “particularly front and rear collisions.” But there is still some risk. According to the NTSB, “accidents involving side impacts or roll-over crashes can throw passengers away from that protection.”
To that end, Terry says that school districts need to address adding seat belts to school buses (which the NTSB also recommends), because the safety protection “does not work when buses are hit from the side.”
“Currently, only eight states have laws requiring seat belts on school buses,” says Hyder. “So it is likely that many students will encounter school buses that do not have seat belts available.” (In 2019, Iowa issued a rule that all new school buses be outfitted with lap-shoulder belts, but older models haven't been retrofitted.)
Lack of expert-recommended seat belts is not the only risk to school bus safety. “One of the gravest threats to children's safety is the surge in reckless driving around school buses,” Steve Randazzo, chief growth officer at the safety technology company BusPatrol, tells Yahoo Life. “Shockingly, reports from the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services reveal that school buses are illegally passed over 43.5 million times annually.”
Terry agrees that this is a concern. “NSC encourages all drivers to take a few minutes and stop when you see a stopped school bus,” she says.
What can parents do about keeping kids safe on and off the bus?
“[Parents] should remind children about staying safe around school buses,” says Randazzo. “As children start learning to drive, parents should reinforce the importance of obeying school bus stopping laws and staying focused on the road.”
For parents who are still anxious, Dr. Phyllis Agran, professor emeritus at the UC Irvine School of Medicine's department of pediatrics and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), has a critical piece of advice: “Convert your anxiety into a positive action.” She recommends talking with your local community — pediatricians, other parents, school administrators, teachers and school bus drivers — to figure out the risks in your community and ask, “How can we make things safer for children?”
She says parents can also look at SafeRoutes.org for information on children walking and biking safely to school, which is part of school bus safety. That's especially important for elementary-aged kids. NTSB traffic safety data from 2011 to 2020 revealed that 52% of school-age pedestrians killed in school transportation-related crashes were 5- to 10-year-olds.
“According to research, children are more at risk when approaching or leaving a school bus,” says Hyder. He advises teaching kids to:
Stand back from the road while waiting for the bus
Not play or run near the bus stop
Wait for the bus to fully stop and for the door to open before standing up or approaching the bus when entering or exiting
Use handrails when mounting or descending the stairs on the bus
Listen to the bus driver and follow their instructions
According to Agran, young children “need to be accompanied by an adult supervisor” when walking to and from, and waiting at, a school bus stop. She also recommends that parents and kids avoid being distracted by their cellphones or other devices while en route to or from the bus stop.
Data from the NHTSA shows that only 0.3% of fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes involve school transportation. “U.S. students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely if they take a school bus instead of traveling by car,” says Agran. But if parents continue to worry, she encourages them to channel that energy into advocating for kids — by, for example, pushing for districts to add seat belts — because that’s what is “really important.”