Are School Children Safe on a Bus?

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A Brief History

On March 13, 2012, the parents of 46 children riding on a Swiss coach (long distance bus, similar to our Greyhound and Trailways or Charter types in the US) found out the hard way that kids are not always safe when riding on a bus.  Near the town of Sierre, Switzerland, a coach carrying 46 school children and 4 of their teachers (and 2 crew members) swerved while driving in the Sierre Tunnel, hitting a curb and then veering head on into a concrete wall.  Among those killed were 22 of the students and all 4 teachers.  The driver and other coach employee were also killed.

Digging Deeper

Researchers tell us that school kids are generally remarkably safe when riding on buses, in fact, according to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), school buses are the safest form of over the road transportation of all.  About 4 to 6 school children per year die in school bus accidents, a remarkably low number considering the number of students and the miles traveled.  Unfortunately, every so often we have the sad experience of reading about or seeing on television a report of school kids terribly injured or killed in a school bus crash.  In the Sierre Tunnel incident cited above, even the surviving children suffered many injuries, some catastrophic.

The driver of the bus in the Sierre Tunnel incident was found not to be drunk and was determined not have been speeding.  Nor was any sign of a medical emergency concerning the driver found.  The best guess of investigators was that the driver may have been fatigued and either drifted off or lost focus, or perhaps suffered a medical emergency undetected by the coroner.  In other words, the investigation did not determine the cause of the horrible crash.  Among the dead, 21 were from Belgium and 6 were from the Netherlands.  The other victim was jointly from Belgium and the UK.

Safety advocates in the United States are frequently calling for or even demanding that school buses be equipped with seat belts.  The incredibly low frequency of school bus crashes and even lower frequency of school bus crashes with major injuries or death gives others the ammunition for resisting such a measure as installing seat belts on school buses.  In fact, the Sierre Tunnel Incident victims were all wearing seat belts at the time of their terrible accident.

Another target of safety conscious advocates is the design of roads, tunnels, bridges and associated structures.  In the Sierre case, the design of the tunnel that presented the concrete wall that could be hit at all was deemed to be a design fault.  Measures such as requiring safety gates at all railroad crossings have undoubtedly saved some lives, as has the regular practice of school buses stopping at all railroad crossings before making the crossing over the tracks.

In 1988, in Norway, another tunnel accident involving school children on a bus occurred, known as the Måbødalen bus accident, a wreck that killed 15 fifth grade children and the bus driver.  In that particular incident, faulty brakes were found to be the culprit.  School bus safety standards have increased to require regular inspection of the vehicles to prevent such tragedies.  While the Måbødalen bus accident was a tragedy, it could have been worse!  It appears the driver intentionally hit the tunnel wall to prevent the even worse results of going over a cliff at the end of the tunnel, an event that would definitely have happened as the bus had lost its braking and all manner of slowing down.

The United States is not immune to school bus disasters, in spite of the excellent track record of school bus safety.  Some of the notable school bus disasters showed us that different causes of accidents can result in tragedy, not one simple factor that is easily fixed.  On February 28, 1958, a school bus in Kentucky ran into the back of a truck, and then rolled down an embankment into a river, drowning 26 students and the driver.  On September 21, 1989, a Texas school bus was hit by a delivery truck, sending the bus into a water filled pit.  In that accident, 21 students died.  On May 21, 1976, high school choir members were among the 53 people aboard a California school bus when it failed to negotiate a highway ramp and fell upside down about 30 feet, landing on the roof!  In that accident, the 1950 vintage school bus was found to have suffered a complete loss of brakes, leading to the wreck that killed 28 students plus a teacher.  Other incidents have cost similar numbers of deaths when school buses have been converted for other uses, such as for churches or other institutions.  Luckily, the vast majority of school bus accidents are minor, and even in some cases accidents that appear major have resulted in few or no fatalities.

Far from relying on luck, or past safe travel, school bus safety is a constantly evolving exercise, including maintenance requirements, safety considerations when building the buses (such as including seat belts, seats that stay attached to the floor in accidents, easy escape windows and the like) as well as improved standards for hiring, training and requalifying school bus drivers.  Laws about other drivers respecting school buses are usually strictly enforced, often with special efforts by local police, as well as community education programs.  Cameras mounted in school buses also help prevent abuses of passengers by drivers or other adults and can intimidate children into behaving with the sure knowledge that bad behavior will be on video and corrective action taken.

If you have any ideas about how we can make school bus travel safer, please share the ideas with us and your fellow readers.  If you have any interesting experiences with school buses, also feel free to share the stories.

Note:  On a police sergeant test, one of the questions was, “What color are school buses?”  The answer was National Chrome #2.  Apaprently the original “National Chrome” yellow school bus color chosen in 1939 was highly toxic, and a change in the formula was mandated later.  The danger was not to the drivers and passengers, but to the factory workers that made the paint.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been on a school bus during a traffic accident?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Kunen, James. Reckless Disregard: Corporate Greed, Government Indifference, and the Kentucky School Bus Crash. Services, 2012.

U.S. GAO. SCHOOL BUS SAFETY Crash Data Trends and Federal and State Requirements. CreateSpace, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Orphée of the wall where the bus crash took place in March 2012 in the tunnel of Sierre in Switzerland, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.