Federal School Bus Underride Study In the Works


Two weeks ago during annual school transportation industry meetings in Kentucky, rumors flew around a potential NHTSA study on the problem of school bus under ride crashes and the injuries and fatalities that can result for other motorists.

Engineer members of the School Bus Manufacturers Technical Council certainly took notice,especially in light of the pending 2010 National Congress on School Transportation next May in Warrensburg, Mo., and deliberations on the evolution of school bus vehicle specifications.

As you might recall, the NCST passed a resolution in 2005 asking NHTSA to study the number of crashes that often occur when a school bus stops or slows down but motorists traveling behind it react too late and crash into the rear. Most Type C conventional and Type D transit school buses have ground clearance to the rear bumper of up to 30 inches, whereas many passenger cars have front ends that are only 25 to 28 inches high. You can imagine the potential injury that can be caused if a vehicle slams into the back of a school bus, and some of you may have even seen firsthand the very gruesome results.

The last federal under ride study performed for NHTSA covered the years 1997 and 1998. That University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute report found that 853 total crashes occurred when a nontruck hit a truck in the rear, with under ride occuring nearly 61 percent of the time.

“There were 979 fatalities in these rear-end crashes; 900 of the fatalities occurred in the striking vehicle. Of the striking vehicle fatalities, 211 occurred with no underride, 565 when some underride was recorded, and 124 when underride could not be determined.”

But, to date, there has yet to be an evaluation of how prevalent the problem is when motorists strike the rear of school buses. Resolution No. 6 [page 403] passed by the NCST state delegates, in fact, only states that “large numbers of vehicles collide with the rear end of school buses each year.” Only from anecdotal news reports can one get a handle on the problem based up on the sheer number of news reports in any one day, week or month — as STN editors can attest to when searching the wire.

But, those whispers heard in Louisville earlier this month were true. By early 2010, NHTSA hopes to revisit commercial truck under rides, and this time expand the study to include straight-body truck and bus chassis in addition to tractor trailers. It’s not tied to the 2005 NCST resolution but to the simple fact truck and bus crash analysis of under rides is outdated. There is also no FMVSS governing straight truck and bus chassis under rides like there is FMVSS 223 and 224 for tractor trailers. The contract has yet to be awarded, though it is confirmed that Battelle Memorial is undertaking a 2010 NHTSA study on trailer under rides, the results of which might be used by manufacturers and inventors in developing crash mitigation strategies.

But the school bus set isn’t transporting furniture, produce or paper. School buses carry real living and breathing children and are already manufactured to the most stringent safety standards. School buses are built to deflect the energy force of rear crashes in a way that better protect students. The last thing school transportation wants is to recalculate the way school buses absorb rear crashes in a way that could lead to more student injuries or fatalities. While NHTSA keeps its collective eyes on the evolution of passive crash avoidance technology, it’s doubtful any under ride study would do more than paint a clearer picture of the number of other motorists who are subject to potential harm when driving behind school buses rather than drive any updated safety standard or open the window for the entry of some new intrusive safety device.

After all, the problem can be mitigated in part by other motorists simply slowing down and paying better attention. And many times, the most high-profile crashes are often student drivers traveling behind the very school bus in which they should have been riding in the first place.