School buses: Safest form of student travel

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Tuesday afternoon, Franklin County dispatchers called Maine State Police and other emergency responders to every parent’s nightmare: a school bus accident.

This one, on the snow-covered Farmington Falls Road, involved a head-on collision with a fully loaded tractor-trailer.

Of the 14 Mt. Blue students and the district bus driver on board, only a few suffered any injury. Fortunately, all of the injuries were minor.

It’s a good reminder about just how safe — and how dangerous — the school commute can be.

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Statistically speaking, according to the National Highway Safety Administration, “every year, our nation’s 450,000 public school buses travel more than 4.3 billion miles to transport 23.5 million children to and from school and school-related activities.”

And, in all those vehicles traveling all those miles and carrying all those children, “students are nearly eight times safer riding in a school bus than with their own parents and guardians in cars,” according to the NHSA.

More chilling is the fact that, according to that agency, students are “about 50 times more likely to arrive at school alive if they take the bus than if they drive themselves or ride with friends.”

That doesn’t mean riding the bus is perfectly safe.

An estimated 800 school-age children die in car accidents during what is considered “normal” school travel hours every year. According to the NHSA, that’s about 14 percent of all child deaths on the nation’s roads, and 2 percent of all motor vehicle deaths.

And, of the 800, about 20 — 2.5 percent — are school bus-related (five passengers and 15 pedestrians). The rest are children who die in passenger cars, riding on motorcycles or bikes, or who are hit by vehicles while walking to school.

In the Farmington incident, after having just let off a student, the school bus was stopped and driver Gerard Simard could only watch as the tractor-trailer slid toward the bus, which had a flat front-end design, giving Simard a wide-screen view of what was to come.

The truck, which was traveling 25 mph in a 45-mph zone, was unable to stop on the slick road and crashed into the bus after attempting to avoid a collision with another vehicle.

No charges are expected to be filed, and the school district responded promptly to support students and their very worried parents (many of whom knew about the wreck before school officials because many students called home from the bus).

That’s a good outcome, which is not always the case.

Last week, in Lincoln, a 6-year-old student was hit by a school bus after she got off the bus. She was hospitalized for several days to be treated for a broken leg, four compression fractures in her skull and one in her neck.

In that case, the bus driver saw the little girl get off the bus, but didn’t see her clear the grille before driving away. That driver is on paid administrative leave, and will not be charged in the incident.

It’s unusual to have such serious school bus accidents in Maine so close together, but riders and their parents should take comfort in knowing that for every 1 million passenger miles traveled, 0.94 deaths occur in passenger vehicles and only 0.01 deaths occur in school buses, making the commute to school by bus safer than any other form of travel, including airlines and passenger trains.

Given that safety record, and despite calls by safety coalitions across the country for schools to fund the installation of seat belts, the National Highway Transportation Administration position is that — statistically speaking — “there is insufficient reason for a federal mandate for seat belts on large school buses” because the high-backed, cushioned seat design works.

The National Education Association concurs, and not just because it fears injuries from students whacking each other with heavy metal buckles, but because — over many years and millions of miles — low accident and injury rates support the notion that school bus design protects children.

So, after the incidents in Farmington and Lincoln, if you are tempted to pull your child from the bus route in favor of riding to school in the family car, don’t.

Students are much safer on the bus.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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