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Protecting Our Most Precious Resource

Are seat belts the answer?

It's important to remember that the typical school bus already must comply with federal standards requiring strong, well-anchored, high-backed seats that are evenly spaced and well-padded. In fact, federal safety standards require that bus interiors have this kind of energy-absorbing protection specifically to provide protection without requiring passengers to buckle up. These standards are part of the reason why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has concluded that "the safety record of school buses is outstanding."

Buses aren't the same as cars
A study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) shows that because of their size and weight, school buses distribute crash forces differently from passenger cars and light trucks. As a result, the NAS study concluded that seat belts would not provide the same benefit for school buses that they do for other vehicles. In its conclusions, the NAS also suggested that funds used to purchase and install seat belts might be better spent on other safety programs and devices.

If seat belts aren't the right approach, then what kinds of safety programs work best? Accident statistics may offer the answer.

Since 1986, statistics show that students are much more likely to suffer injury or death outside a school bus than inside the vehicle. Moreover, students and other pedestrians who are walking near school buses account for the greatest share of school bus-related deaths: about 30 each year. Of course, deaths or injuries to pedestrians would not be reduced by requiring seat belts.

Where the focus should be
Relatively few injuries or deaths result from the misjudgment of bus drivers. Indeed, a careful analysis reveals that the root causes of most school bus-related injuries and deaths is faulty procedures or unsafe driving by other motorists. One-third of the 30 or so annual pedestrian fatalities are caused by motorists who illegally pass a school bus that has stopped to discharge or pick up passengers.

During the 1997-98 school year, the Florida Department of Education monitored 48 school bus routes in different areas of the state. On these routes alone, the department counted 3,576 incidents of motorists who illegally passed stopped school buses.

Many states, such as Massachusetts and North Carolina, have begun to crack down. In Massachusetts, a motorist who receives a second citation for illegally passing a school bus must appear before a judge for a formal hearing. In spring 2000, Rhode Island passed a law allowing school bus drivers and bus aides to report the license plate number of vehicles that pass stopped school buses.

In every state and school district, strong laws are needed. But having laws isn't enough; the laws must be strictly and consistently enforced.

Not following safety procedures also can play a role in many injuries and deaths. Each year, children are injured or killed at or near bus stops when they forget to look both ways before crossing an intersection or dash out in front of an approaching car.

The role of student behavior
Driving a school bus or other large vehicle on busy roads and highways requires a driver's complete attention—something made very difficult when student passengers are fighting or otherwise misbehaving. Disorder inside a bus can cause injuries or serve to distract the driver, increasing the odds of an accident or collision with another vehicle.

How the AFT and our affiliates are working to improve bus safety

  • School bus drivers in Hillsborough County, Fla., and in Oklahoma City are practicing what they learned during a weeklong course on managing student behavior. Developed by the AFT, the intensive course was offered through the union's Educational Research & Dissemination (ER&D) program.
  • AFT affiliates in Florida and Washington have responded to growing concerns about assaults against bus drivers by gang members, students and others. These local unions have lobbied to help pass laws that treat physical attacks on school bus drivers just as seriously as attacks on other school personnel.
  • The AFT local in St. Tammany Parish, La., has ensured that school bus drivers have the same authority as other district employees to enforce the code of student conduct. Drivers can attempt to resolve relatively minor incidents themselves--first by talking with the student and then, if necessary, by contacting parents. If neither approach works, school officials are brought in to handle the matter.
  • In Alachua County, Fla.; St. Tammany Parish, La.; and other districts, AFT locals have worked successfully to get bus drivers appointed to districtwide committees on student discipline.
  • Bus drivers in Cazenovia and Wappingers Falls, N.Y., are required to attend in-service training each year. Drivers in Oswego County, N.Y., are eligible for a safe-driving incentive every year.

What can parents and the community do?

  • Support the passage of state laws that impose strict penalties for motorists who illegally pass school buses that are loading or unloading, or who otherwise endanger students through unsafe driving. Communities also should support passage of laws that require passengers on school buses to be seated at all times.
  • Find out whether your school system has a discipline code--and, if it does, whether it covers student behavior on buses. This code should identify unacceptable behavior and the specific consequences for that behavior. If there is no discipline code or if the code doesn't address bus behavior, raise the issue at a school board meeting.
  • Ensure that your children understand basic safety rules and proper procedures. For example, children should know not to attempt to pick up books or other objects that are dropped near or under a school bus.

What can school boards and administrators do?

  • Prepare and distribute a standard form--which students and their parents must sign at the start of the school year--that clearly outlines the rules and expectations for behavior on school buses. These rules and procedures should be included in your district's student discipline code.
  • Hire bus monitors whose specific responsibility is to maintain order on board. School systems should make sure these monitors receive proper training and that they have the full support of administrators.
  • Consider equipping more school buses with cameras to record the activities of students on board. This can help determine what really happened in the case of a serious incident on a bus.
  • Repair or replace handrails that are likely to snag children's clothing, book bags and other belongings. In recent years, several students have been killed and others injured after their clothes or personal items became caught on the door or handrails as they were getting off the bus.
  • Ensure that drivers have the necessary equipment on board (cell phones or two-way radios) to communicate with a central facility in the event of an emergency.
  • Provide drivers with training on discipline and good safety practices, and incorporate bus safety training into school curriculums.

Bus drivers' commitment

No one wants safe school buses more than school bus drivers. Perhaps the main reason school buses are the safest form of transportation is the bus drivers' commitment to bus safety. School bus drivers play a key role on the educational team. All bus drivers want buses to be safer, but it will take more than a "quick fix." In addition to new equipment, improved safety depends on the development of new practices such as proper training, less crowding and stronger discipline policies. School bus drivers are required to hold a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) with an "S" (School Bus) endorsement. This endorsement includes training and testing on handling student behavior on the school bus. 

The school bus drivers who are members of the AFT are working hard to improve school bus safety standards. Help us protect our most precious resource, our children. Work with us to keep them safe on school buses.

Some people have called for all school buses to be fitted with seat belts—an idea that sounds appealing at first. But would the high cost of installing seat belts significantly improve bus safety?