Despite Lack of Seat Belts, School Bus Fatalities Are Rare

Only a few regions experienced multiple fatal crashes in the last decade.
by | February 23, 2016
The scene of a bus crash in Indianapolis, where the driver and one student were killed. (AP/Michael Conroy)

Each year, school buses log more than 4 billion miles on U.S. roadways, transporting roughly 25 million students. But despite all the inherent risks, the number of students killed in school bus crashes is relatively small.

The federal government, though, is now calling on states and local districts to make school buses even safer. In a policy reversal late last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommended that all school buses be equipped with lap and shoulder seat belts after previously rejecting such requirements.

To show how often and where accidents occur, Governing compiled 10 years of the most recent federal data on school bus traffic fatalities from 2005 through 2014.

Most school buses aren’t equipped with any kind of seat belts. Six states have varying laws requiring seat belts in school buses, while some districts have opted to phase new seat belt-equipped buses into their fleets.

It’s no surprise, then, that of the 61 school bus passengers killed between 2005 and 2014, only four were wearing seat belts.

Safety Restraint Use All Fatalities Bus Passengers Bus Drivers
Lap And Shoulder Belt Used 22 3 19
Lap Belt Used 5 1 4
None Used/Not Applicable 72 53 19
Child Safety/Booster Seat Used 1 1 0
Unknown 6 3 3
SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2005-2014 NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System data. See note.

Some buses are equipped with older lap belts, but safety advocates are calling for newer lap and shoulder belts, commonly referred to as three-point seat belts. Of course, whether the belts are used properly and the circumstances of a crash can potentially hinder their effectiveness.

School bus accidents resulting in loss of life remain a rare occurrence. Over the 10-year period, 106 passengers or drivers were killed -- that's fewer than 11 a year on average. For only school-age passengers, an average of about five deaths occur each year.

Year Crashes Bus Drivers Killed Passengers Killed Passengers Age ≤ 18 Killed
2005 9 5 5 4
2006 5 3 5 4
2007 4 4 1 1
2008 13 4 15 14
2009 4 2 3 3
2010 15 6 9 9
2011 10 7 4 3
2012 10 6 8 8
2013 7 4 4 3
2014 6 4 7 3
SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2005-2014 NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System data. See note.

The states with the most fatalities over the 10-year period were Florida (8) and Pennsylvania (11). Only a few regions experienced multiple fatal crashes. In Pittsburgh, three bus drivers lost their lives in separate incidents, most recently in 2010. In Indianapolis, three drivers were killed in separate incidents, and last month, a bus jumped a curb and fatally struck an elementary school principal.

It’s much more difficult to track injuries from bus accidents. A 2006 study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics estimated that 17,000 children suffer school-bus related injuries a year, with only 42 percent of those resulting from crashes. In states like Texas, school districts are required by law to submit annual reports to the state on school bus accidents. But a recent report in the Houston Chronicle noted that some reported tallies were incomplete or misleading.

Regardless of which set of numbers one parses, it’s clear that serious school bus crashes are very, very rare. Consider this: An estimated 0.01 fatalities occur for every 100 million miles children travel to and from school in buses, compared to 0.7 fatalities for those traveling in passenger vehicles, according to NHTSA. The majority of all students killed while commuting ride in vehicles driven by teens.

In fact, far more school-age pedestrians are killed than children riding in buses. Between 2003 and 2012, 119 pedestrians age 18 and younger were killed in accidents considered to be school transportation-related, compared to 55 riding in school buses, according to NHTSA calculations.

School Bus Fatality Data

Governing compiled data from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System on all accidents occurring between 2005 and 2014 considered to be “school transportation-related” where at least one school bus passenger or driver was killed. All references to fatalities in this story refer to this data, unless otherwise noted.

This map shows the 83 fatal crashes that occurred over the 10-year period. (click to open interactive map in new window):