Concerns for Kids' Safety on the Rise After Spate of Yellow Bus Accidents

The iconic yellow school bus for years has been touted as the safest form of motor vehicle transportation for schoolchildren, but recent crashes and rollovers have some parents feeling less than confident about the safety of their kids.

— On Tuesday, 28 people were hurt when two school buses and a car collided in Harrisonburg, Va. The crash happened when a bus driver ran a traffic signal, causing his bus and a car to crash into another school bus. The driver, 70-year-old Harold Long, has been charged with reckless driving.

— On Monday, a school bus carrying 27 middle and high school students overturned on its morning route about 40 miles north of Atlanta. Eleven students were taken to hospitals for treatment. Some of the children suffered neck and back injuries.

— On Feb. 27, a rollover accident outside Washington, D.C., sent five middle school students to the hospital. Authorities said the driver, who was also hurt, turned too fast, causing the bus to flip.

— On Feb. 19, four students were killed when a school bus hit a van outside Cottonwood, Minn., and then hit a pickup before tipping over. In addition to the four dead, 14 others were injured.

The recent incidents have rekindled the debate over whether seat belts should be mandatory on school buses.

"You can't help but wonder what the cost is to install seat belts versus how many lives would be saved," said Doug Kaufman, 48. His 6-year-old twins, Adam and Naomi, ride the bus to school in a Baltimore suburb less than an hour from where the Washington rollover occurred.

"I'm trusting the traffic people that they know what they're doing, that cooler heads than us must have considered this problem of safety," Kaufman said.

Lt. Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Minnesota State Patrol, said there is "no way to know" whether seat belts might have made a difference in the deadly Feb. 19 crash.

Federal law does not require seat belts on large school buses. On a state level, only California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas require seat belts on school buses.

"As far as a manufacturer, we make buses with seat belts and without them, whatever our customers want," said Keith Kladder, marketing manager for IC Corp. "School buses are already the safest mode of transportation without seat belts."

About 474,000 school buses carry 25.1 million children to and from school every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On average, fewer than eight passengers a year die in school bus crashes, according to agency statistics.

Kladder said those numbers speak volumes.

"Between riding a bike, mom's minivan or carpooling, the bus is the safest," he said.

Data from the Safety Administration through 2005 showed about 8,000 children are injured each year in school bus crashes.

But Alan Ross, president of the National Coalition of School Bus Safety, said the government's annual injury tally is misleading.

He cites a study published in the November 2006 issue of Pediatrics that found school bus-related accidents in the United States send an average of 17,000 children to emergency rooms each year.

While crashes account for 42 percent of the injuries, nearly 24 percent of the injuries occur when children are boarding, leaving or approaching school buses. Some kids also are hurt when school bus drivers apply the brakes or turn sharp corners, or when the students slip and fall aboard buses.

The study's researchers said their findings make the argument for installing seat belts on all school buses.

Ross, the school bus safety advocate, agrees.

"The industry will tell you that they don't need them," he said. "We've had belts in the mini-school buses for the last 40 years and that track record has showed us that these things save lives."

It costs an additional $5,000 to $10,000 to install safety belts on a new 66-passenger bus, which costs around $70,000, Ross said.

"Over the 12-year average life of the vehicle it comes out to about an extra 15 to 25 cents a day per child," Ross said.

The Web site of the American School Bus Council, an industry group, says safety belts are unnecessary because buses are designed to protect children, like eggs in a carton.

Seats are "compartmentalized and surrounded with padding and structural integrity to secure the entire container," the council says. "The seat backs are raised and the shell is reinforced for protection against impact."

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters in November announced a federal proposal that requires higher seat backs to help keep older kids and adults from being thrown over seats in a crash.

It also would provide federal standards for seat belts on buses for school districts that make the decision to add them. Districts would be allowed to use federal highway safety funds to cover the additional cost.

But some parents say the safety of the bus is not their biggest worry. They're concerned about the people behind the wheel.

Glastonbury, Conn., mom Peggy Sattler, 39, wishes she knew more about the people transporting her 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to school each day.

"Here we spend all this time getting to know the teachers and I don't know who this bus driver is," Sattler said. "You almost think there should be a bus driver-parent conference."

Federal law does not mandate background checks for drivers, although many states and individual school districts do.

School bus drivers must obtain a commercial driver's license and pass written and skills tests. They receive specialized classroom and behind-the-wheel training in driving a school bus, student loading and unloading procedures, student evacuation, student behavior and security management and emergency medical procedures.

All school bus drivers are required to participate in pre-employment, random and post-accident drug and alcohol testing, undergo frequent driving record checks and pass periodic medical exams.

Sattler said she would never want to trade places with a school bus driver.

"I think it must be one of the most stressful jobs out there," she said. "You're driving this huge vehicle. The kids have no seat belts on. I've heard from my son that there's a few occasions that the bus driver had to stop and yell at kids to sit down."

The National Coalition for School Bus Safety said concerned parents need to raise their voices at the local level.

"The way to change this is grassroots," Ross said. "The local school board has the power. They can order the bus any way they want. They can order safety belts. They can order flame-retardant fabric. They can order enhanced driver training."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.