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School bus safety



Published: Thu, April 21, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: The horrifyingly mangled Arlington County, Va., school bus after its collision with a garbage truck Monday morning, the heartbreaking photo of 9-year-old Lilibeth Gomez, who was killed in the crash -- Tuesday's front page showed every parent's nightmare. It evoked the terrible sense of dread that is the inevitable dark twin of the joy of parenthood, the knowledge that keeping your children safe can never be entirely within your control.

It also inevitably raised questions for many parents about school bus safety. But if risk is an inevitable part of life, putting a child on a school bus is one of the less dangerous things a parent does. The fatality rate for school buses is less than one-seventh that of regular passenger vehicles. This is a result of their sheer size and of design improvements, mandated by the federal government in 1977, that bolstered safety through what's called "compartmentalization" -- seats placed closer together, with padding and high backs to absorb the energy of a crash. In 2003, five children nationwide were killed riding on school buses; school bus crashes accounted for three-tenths of 1 percent of fatal crashes between 1992 and 2002. In short, it's safer to put your children on a school bus than to drive them yourself.

Safety belts

Any accident also brings to the surface the issue of whether buses should be equipped with safety belts. In fact, two-point belts, the kind that just cross a passenger's lap, could cause more harm than good, especially for young children, by increasing the risk of abdominal, spinal and head injuries. And, sadly, it's not likely that any seat belt would have helped Lilibeth, who was seated in the area of direct impact with the truck.

A more debatable matter is the use of three-point restraints, which stretch across the chest. This would be difficult on existing buses, which aren't designed for such systems, but more feasible on new vehicles.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents, concluded six years ago that, despite the improvements achieved by compartmentalization, students in some crashes ... weren't as well protected as they could be. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets rules on vehicle safety, has been studying the issue but has been awfully slow in coming up with improvements.




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