Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

December 16, 2012

Few accidents

Buses are safest way for kids to go to and from school

The Independent

ASHLAND — They daily travel some of the worst roads in Kentucky while carrying the world’s most precious cargo. But despite often traveling before dawn or after dark, Kentucky’s 10,000 school buses remain one of the safest ways of getting students to and from school. In fact, children are more likely to be in an accident while riding to school in a private vehicle or while walking or riding their bikes to school than they are being injured in a bus accident.

Of course, telling someone that school buses are the safest way of getting to school is of little comfort if your child or someone you know is in a school bus accident.

The new report on school bus safety comes on the heels of an October accident in Carrollton in which  preschoolers died when their school bus overturned. An investigation of that accident remains under way.

A month earlier, 48 Louisville middle school students were whisked to hospitals after their bus was hit and flipped on its side. Fortunately, no one was killed in the accident and most of the injuries were relatively minor.

Accidents involving buses are not rare. There was an average of 1,434 school bus incidents per school year in Kentucky from 2007-2008 to 2010-2011, according to an Associated Press analysis of data provided by the Kentucky Department of Education. The state broadly tracks “incidents,” which can include anything from a fatal accident to a bus simply hitting a mailbox. Fortunately, most of the bus accidents are minor “fender-benders.”

Only two students were killed while riding school buses in Kentucky between 2007 and 2011, a number equaled by the October accident near Carrolton. The records reveal during the four years studied, there were 20 serious injuries to students or school staff riding a school bus but hundreds of minor injuries.

Although parents tend to worry about darkness and wet roads, a school bus in Kentucky was more likely to be involved in an incident during the afternoon on a two-lane road under clear skies with dry road conditions, the records show.

“I don’t find it surprising,” said Lisa Gross, who is retiring as the longtime spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, “because the majority of the time that buses are on the road, it’s daytime. And there’s probably an increase in other traffic in the afternoon. Most bus routes would travel two-lane roads.”

Kentucky’s school districts are required to submit an annual report tallying school bus incidents to the department. Gross said local districts use the data to identify potential problems and may ask the state agency to intervene if necessary.

The overwhelming majority of accidents involved the school bus and another moving vehicle, according to the data. About half as many incidents each year involve buses colliding with fixed objects, such as parked vehicles, utility poles, mailboxes, guardrails, buildings, trees, signs, curbs and embankments.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says school buses are the safest way to transport students to and from school. Ronna Weber, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, an industry trade group, said school buses are required to meet “the most stringent safety standards of any vehicle on the road today.”

Weber said children are almost 50 times safer riding in a school bus than driving themselves or with a teen driver, and almost eight times safer than traveling in the cars of parents or guardians.

That may surprise a lot of parents who choose to take their children to school instead of allowing them to ride buses they do not consider safe. But some of the best trained and most skilled drivers on the road are behind the wheels of school buses. We don’t envy them because it is a difficult, stressful job that requires not only the skills to travel narrow roads but also to control their sometimes rowdy passengers.

Largely as a result of a deadly accident involving a church  bus returning from a day at King’s Island, school buses are much safer today than ever and drivers are better trained. That’s as it should be.