China Tragedy Reminds of U.S. Successes, Work Still to Be Done

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Days before student transporters in the United States prepare their turkeys for Thanksgiving, dozens of parents in China’s Gansu province are mourning the loss of their children and asking some serious questions.

It appalled anyone who read newspaper accounts or watched reports on TV or the Internet about the school van crash last week that claimed the lives of 21 kindergarten students and injured 41 others. The driver and another adult were also killed when the vehicle collided head on with a truck. Inexplicably — other than the most obvious reason of saving money on transportation costs — the 62 students, ages 5 and 6 years old, were crammed into the nine-passenger van like sardines. It’s unimaginable to think how this was even possible, but it was, and the results were deadly.

Coincidentally, the crash occurred nearly five years to the day of the Nov. 20, 2006 school bus crash in Huntsville, Ala., that killed five high school students after the vehicle plunged off of a freeway overpass. The result was a renewed effort to require school bus drivers to wear their seat belts, after a contributing factor was found to have been the result of the driver being thrown clear of the bus as it lost control and left the highway.

Meanwhile, The New York Times over the weekend published a story from Beijing that sheds some light on the tragedy. The crash was certainly no aberration, as the article mentioned a surprisingly candid report by a state-run newspaper that recent “school-bus accidents” have tallied about 60 child fatalities. Next to the article in the 21st Century Business Herald, NYT described, was a sidebar listing how much money some Chinese government departments spent last year on luxury cars. [Editor’s note — The only links found for this publication were listed on a Linkedin profile, and the site is solely in Chinese. Good luck on the translation.]

As we blogged on Friday, the “official” count of fatalities from vehicle crashes in China is close to 70,000, or more than twice that in the U.S. But in actuality, there could be some 150,000 vehicle fatalities. Granted, China has four times as many people, but it’s little secret that the country lags far behind on vehicle safety standards. The Chinese government attempted to address this in July 2010 by ordering that buses carrying primary students be equipped with seat belts as well as meet construction standards and have emergency exits and data recorders. Then, this past summer, a Chinese bus manufacturer introduced a “big-nose school bus” with a “classic western-style appearance.”

But the overarching problem, as NYT quotes a Beijing fleet owner as telling China Daily last year, is not the lack of a standard for school-bus vehicles but “the rampant use of illegal vehicles” like the van involved in last Wednesday’s crash. And there are dozens and dozens of other examples of senseless loss of life on the country’s “school buses,” of which only a few made mention in the NYT article.

“The government should not wait for more fatal crashes to occur to take whatever steps are needed to ensure that the nation’s children are as safe as they can be,” NYT quotes China Daily, another state-run newspaper, as writing last year.

After the latest tragedy, the Education Ministry has ordered a national inspection of these “school buses,” and the owner of the kindergarten was arrested. It remains to be seen if anything changes and, if so, how long it will take. It was 41 years ago when the first National School Bus Loading & Unloading Survey was released, then compiled by the Kansas Department of Transportation. It showed that 26 states reported 75 student fatalities around the school bus “danger zone” that year. Twenty-three states reported no fatalities, not that there was zero but that any fatal crashes did not meet state reporting requirements. Two states did not respond.

Keep in mind that on-board school bus fatalities during crashes were not factored into this survey. It also took another seven years for NHTSA to publish its first Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for school buses. Today, the “American” yellow school bus is revered for its safety record, as has been mentioned in Chinese newspapers and in the blogosphere. NYT wrote that the Chinese paper News Weekly asked: “Why doesn’t the flower of the nation have a proper flower pot?” Next to it ran a picture of a big yellow school bus.

Historically, the school bus industry in the United States has been skeptical of the Chinese for issues of intellectual property theft, especially in this growing global economy. But perhaps this is also the next great opportunity to share the illumination of school bus safety and oversight with our friends to the Far East? Already, last month, the Connecticut DMV provided training to visiting Chinese government officials on school bus safety.

More students’ lives saved irrespective of international boundaries in addition to providing much-needed consultation to the world’s second-largest economy on how to properly transport children to and from school might end up being the biggest and best reason to give thanks yet.

Photo courtesy The Associated Press. All rights reserved.