School buses safer than ever

Six states, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, require seat belts on school buses. California requires three-point seat belts, but the state cannot charge any person, school district, or organization with violating if a passenger either does not fasten his or her seat belt, or does so improperly.

Seat belts, other safety features added

Every day more than 4,000 students ride a school bus in Porterville. It is probably the safest mode of transportation they can find.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 42,000 people are killed in traffic crashes on U.S. roads every year. Every year, approximately 450,000 public school buses travel about 4.3 billion miles to transport 23.5 million children to and from school and school-related activities. Yet, on average, every year, six school age children (throughout the U.S.) die in school bus crashes as passengers.

California has not had a school bus fatality since 1996.

Porterville Unified buses approximately 2,500 students daily on its fleet of 40 buses, said Ken Gibbs, assistant superintendent for Business. “We have many additional students on field trips and athletic events. We travel approximately 770,000 miles each year,” he added.

Tracy Tucker, director of transportation for the Burton School District, said they have 1,500 passengers every day on the district’s 16 buses.

School buses today are safer than ever. Of Porterville’s 40 buses, 15 are now equipped with seat belts. Burton has five buses with seat belts.

California required just a few years ago all new buses include seat belts, but that comes with a price. A large bus without seat belts can seat 84 students, while a bus with seat belts can only accommodate 65 students, so it means more buses are needed to carry the same amount of students. A large bus with seat belts cost about $150,000, said Gibbs.

Tucker and Gibbs pointed out there are many new safety features on buses — some required and some not. Nearly all local buses have cameras, GPS and two-way communication. Buses have much more padding than the old buses.

“Cameras are more important for unruly kids, but it helps to monitor the driver as well,” said Tucker.

“Seat backs are padded,” said Tucker. “They’re taller, they’re thicker,” he said.

Something found on many of Porterville Unified’s buses are swing arms at the front of the bus. As children depart the arm swings out to prevent a child from running directly in front of the bus.

“It’s when they are off the bus that they’re most vulnerable,” said Tucker, adding while Burton does not have the swing arms, its policy is for bus drivers to escort kids across the roadway which also prevents a child from being run over by traffic or the bus.

Pedestrian fatalities account for the highest number of school bus-related fatalities, said the NTSB. There are about 17 such fatalities per year, two-thirds of which involve the school bus itself and the rest involving motorists illegally passing the stopped school bus.

That is why buses are now equipped with small stop signs that swing out and the law requires motorist to stop if a bus is flashing its red lights.

All buses also come equipped with strobe lights to make them more visible in the fog, especially in the PUSD district which has buses in more rural routes.

Tucker said newer buses are also more environmentally friendly in that they do not pollute as much, and gas mileage is improved.

A third of Burton’s fleet runs on natural gas and many of the buses get 12 to 15 miles per gallon, compared to less than 7 miles per gallon for old buses.

School bus drivers also must undergo constant training.

To become a driver a person must go through 20 hours of classroom training and 20 hours of behind the wheel training. “Then they must take numerous tests and a final test with the California Highway Patrol,” said Tucker. Drivers also must undergo about 20 hours of training every year.

School buses are approximately seven times safer than passenger cars or light trucks, said the NTSB. The school bus occupant fatality rate of 0.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled is considerably lower than the fatality rates for passenger cars or light trucks (1.44 per 100 million).

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