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School buses average 115 fatal crashes a year: GAO study

By Mike Wilson  |  May 17, 2017

schoolbus fatal crashes

Every day, more than 26 million children ride school buses to school and other activities. While school buses generally have a strong safety record, crashes involving injuries and fatalities do occur—and that’s drawn the attention of government oversight entities and the school bus transportation industry.

GAO safety analysis

Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked comprehensively at bus safety in a study, School Bus Safety: Crash Data Trends and Federal and State Requirements. The GAO examined fatal crashes involving school buses occurring between 2000 and 2014, as well as federal and state school bus–related laws and regulations, among other items.

Two data sets were analyzed: one from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the other from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s (UMTRI) research on fatal school bus crashes for those years, with 2014 the latest year for which data was available.

The GAO also reviewed federal laws and regulations and systematically searched state laws and regulations on school bus inspections, driver training, and maximum vehicle age and capacity in all 50 states. In addition, the agency interviewed U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, school bus industry associations and manufacturers, and other stakeholders.

Average 115 fatal crashes a year

Based on the GAO’s analysis of data for 2000 to 2014, school buses are involved in 115 fatal crashes on average each year. This amounts to 0.3 percent of the 34,835 total fatal motor vehicle crashes that occur on average each year. The driver was cited as a contributing factor in 27 percent of fatal school bus crashes, and the school bus itself (for example, a vehicle defect) was cited in less than 1 percent of the crashes. Seventy-two percent of fatal crashes occurred during home-to-school and school-to-home travel times.

Several federal and state agencies have oversight for school bus safety, while local school buses can be operated by school districts or private contractors working on behalf of a school district. Federal laws and regulations set requirements for certain aspects of school bus safety, and state laws and regulations go beyond the federal requirements in many cases.

Buses meet more rigorous standards

Federal regulations for school bus vehicle standards and driver licensing apply to school districts and contractors alike. The DOT has reported that new school buses must meet more federal motor vehicle safety standards than any other type of new motor vehicle. Federal safety regulations for commercial motor vehicle operations apply in certain cases, such as for contractors hired by schools to provide transportation for extracurricular activities across state lines.

The GAO found that all 50 states require school bus inspections, but only 44 require refresher training for school bus drivers. It was also found that less than a quarter of states set specific requirements for the maximum age and seating capacity of school buses. Overall, according to stakeholders interviewed, requirements vary by state for school bus inspections, driver training, and vehicles but tend not to differ based on the type of operator.

Valued industry resources

Bus industry stakeholders most commonly cited the National Congress on School Transportation (NCST) and its National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures as a source of leading practices for safe school bus transportation. Seventeen of the 30 stakeholders interviewed, including manufacturers and state directors of student transportation, identified NCST and the voluntary document as a national standard for school bus safety.

For federal guidance, two stakeholders mentioned that they look to NHTSA’s Highway Safety Program Guideline No. 17, Pupil Transportation Safety, which recommends strategies for a school bus safety program at the state level. For example, this guideline recommends developing a training plan for drivers and establishing a systematic preventive maintenance program for school buses that includes periodic vehicle inspections.

There was no consensus when stakeholders were asked what additional federal research and guidance would benefit the school bus industry. Some said data or guidance on combating illegal passing of school buses would be useful. The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) conducts an annual survey on illegal passing, whereby school bus drivers voluntarily count the number of vehicles that pass them when they stop to load and unload students. For each of the five years NASDPTS has collected data, participating school bus drivers have observed more than 74,000 instances of illegal passing on a single day.

More driver training sought

Some stakeholders said additional federal guidance on school bus driver training on various topics would be helpful, including loading and unloading students and technology distraction. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently established minimum regulations for entry-level training for school bus drivers when applying for a commercial driver’s license. Two school bus associations, the NASDPTS and the National School Transportation Association, were part of the negotiated rule-making committee that helped develop the training regulations (the rule was delayed due to a freeze on new federal regulations). Additionally, NHTSA’s 2011 refresher training for school bus drivers covers several topics, including loading and unloading students.

Learn about driver risk and claim avoidance

Claim avoidance is high on the list of priorities for any commercial vehicle insurer. Client handouts from Verisk Insurance Solutions’ Engineering and Safety Service (E&S™) are just one way to avoid potential losses. Properly assessing and pricing the driver, vehicle, and business risk at the time of underwriting are critical. There’s more information related to commercial auto underwriting and loss control services on our websites.

Mike Wilson is senior technical manager at Verisk Insurance Solutions’ Engineering and Safety Service (E&S™). You can contact Mike at