Based on a detailed analysis of school bus safety data, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that school bus fatalities represent less than 1 percent of total road fatalities nationwide despite student transporters contending with an assortment of state regulations.
In a report to Congress released this month, the GAO discovered an average of 115 fatal crashes involving a school bus occurred between 2000 to 2014. This, however, only accounted for 0.3 percent of the total average of motor-vehicle crashes (34,835) each year.
The report also found that the school bus driver was often cited as a contributing factor in 27 percent of fatal school bus-related crashes, while vehicle defect played a role in less than 1 percent of cases.
The report did not examine illegal passing deaths, but did discuss requests from industry stakeholders who sought "useful" data or guidance on ways to combat illegal passing.
The GAO looked at the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services's annual one-day count of illegal passers, which last year totaled more than 74,000 vehicles. This number was observed by only 20 percent of the nation's school bus drivers who participated in the survey.
Furthermore, the report examined National Highway Traffic Safety Administration research into the effectiveness of video cameras to enforce laws on passing school buses that is currently underway.
In addition, the GAO collected responses from stakeholders who said they wanted additional federal guidance on school bus driver training, including proper loading and unloading of students at bus stops and tips to combat distracted driving, especially from technology.
Much of the data gathered by the GAO identified that the factors in a majority of driver-related fatal crashes (68 percent) ranged from leaving vehicle unattended with engine running to failing to keep in the proper lane.
The next most common category, identified for 12 percent of driver-related factors, was physical or mental condition, such as careless driving and reaction to or failure to take drugs or medications.
In fewer than 10 percent of fatal crashes, the school bus driver was charged with a “rules-of-the-road” violation, like failure to signal for a turn or stop or inattentive, careless or improper driving
Vehicle-related factors in fatal crashes involving the school bus were rarely found. Of the 1,731 total fatal crashes from 2000 to 2014, only five crashes identified the vehicle as the cause for the crash. Three were for brakes, one for tires and wheels and one for other components.
The report didn’t go into details of the specific defects, but showed that about 80 percent of fatal crashes involved Type C or Type D school buses, and 6 percent involved Type A or Type B school buses.
As for the federal laws and regulations that establish minimum requirements for school bus safety, the GAO discovered that states establish more comprehensive safety requirements for school bus vehicles and operations.
“All 50 states require school bus inspections, and most states also require driver training,” the report said. “However, fewer states require a specific maximum vehicle age or seating capacity for school buses. While state requirements build on federal laws and regulations, the specific requirements states set for school bus safety vary.”
The GAO showed that 44 states require entry-level training and 44 states require refresher training for all school bus drivers. But, as with inspection requirements, the report revealed that the frequency, length and other attributes of the required training differ across states.
Overall, though, the report did nothing to dissuade the image of the school bus—which transports more than 26 million students daily—being the safest vehicle on the road, the report’s introduction saying as much.
“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has reported that school buses are the safest means of getting children to and from school and school-related activities,” the report said. “School buses have a strong safety record, but school bus crashes with fatalities and injuries still occur and are often high-profile, since they involve precious cargo—the nation’s schoolchildren.”
The GAO report also cited NHTSA observations that the school bus industry is "a close-knit community" that keeps itself informed via conferences and networks established across all levels of government to remain on top of safety issues.
To view the full report, click here.