In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated a number of catastrophic school bus accidents in which children were killed or severely injured because of the vehicles' joint failure and structural collapse. Based on its findings in these accident investigations, the Safety Board issued several safety recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to improve the crashworthiness of school buses so as to afford our nation's youth better occupant crash protection in the event of accidents.
The resulting revisions to 49 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), contained in Part 571, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), require that large and small yellow school buses transporting children to and from school or school-related activities have roof rollover protection, energy-absorbing seats, and greater body joint strength than most other types of vehicles. The enactment of these standards has had an enormous impact on the safety of student transportation. According to a NHTSA fact sheet on school buses, the number of school bus passenger fatalities nationwide averages fewer than 10 each year out of approximately 10 billion student trips.
In recent years, the Safety Board has investigated several serious accidents highlighting a disturbing trend in pupil transportation. Some school districts, day care centers, Head Start facilities, contract transportation companies, and other concerns are using "nonconforming buses," that is, vehicles for student transportation that meet the Federal definition of a bus but not the Federal occupant crash protection standards of school buses. This trend is potentially serious in that it puts children at greater risk of fatal or serious injury in the event of an accident. During an 11-month period beginning in spring 1998, the Safety Board investigated four accidents involving nonconforming buses, summarized below, that resulted in 9 people dying and 36 people sustaining serious and minor injuries. Most of the victims, including the eight fatalities, were children.
On March 25, 1998, in Sweetwater, Florida, a 15-passenger van hired by parents to take children to and from school collided with a transit bus. Three children were ejected and sustained head injuries. On March 26, 1998, in Lenoir City, Tennessee, a 25-passenger specialty bus taking children from a school-related activity collided with a truck tractor semitrailer. Two people, one of whom was ejected, were fatally injured. On December 8, 1998, in East Dublin, Georgia, a 15-passenger van transporting children to a Head Start program collided with a pickup truck. One child was ejected and fatally injured. On February 16, 1999, in Bennettsville, South Carolina, a 15-passenger van transporting children home from an after-school church program was struck by a tow truck. Three children were ejected, and a total of six children were fatally injured.
Based on its findings in these accidents, the Safety Board initiated the special investigation that is the subject of this report. In the course of its investigation, the Board found that while most States require that children can only be transported to and from school on buses meeting Federal school bus crashworthiness standards, some States either allow or do not prohibit the use of nonconforming buses for school-related activities, Head Start programs, child care facilities, and "for-hire" transport despite Federal guidelines to the contrary. The Safety Board is firmly convinced that the best way to maximize pupil transportation safety is to require the use of school buses or buses built to equivalent occupant crash protection standards. When States and various school systems allow children to be transported in vehicles not meeting Federal school bus construction standards, the Federal intent of protecting school children is undermined.
In two of the accidents that are the focus of this special investigation (Lenoir City and Bennettsville), bus crashworthiness is an issue. In two others (Sweetwater and East Dublin), occupant crash protection is an issue. In three of the accidents, most of the child occupants were not wearing the available restraints. (The specialty bus in the Lenoir City accident was not equipped with restraints, nor was it required to be.) The proper use of age-appropriate restraints is essential for passenger safety in almost all motor vehicles. However, a review of State and local laws showed that they do not require or, in some cases, do not address this most fundamental safety feature for pupil transportation.
This special investigation report discusses the subject accidents in greater detail, the lack of occupant crash protection of the various types of nonconforming vehicles, and the State and local laws that undermine the safety of pupil transportation. The specific safety issues include the following:
- The adequacy of occupant crash protection and crashworthiness of nonconforming buses transporting school children;
- The adequacy of State regulations and guidelines governing nonconforming buses used to transport school children; and
- The adequacy of State laws governing the use of restraint systems in nonconforming buses transporting school children
As a result of its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following Safety Recommendations:
To the Department of Health and Human Services:
Require that Head Start children be transported in vehicles built to Federal school bus structural standards or the equivalent. (H-99-20)
Incorporate and mandate the use of the guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Guideline for the Safe Transportation of Pre-school Age Children in School Buses into the rules for the transportation of Head Start children. (H-99-21)
To the Governors of the 50 States and the Mayor of the District of Columbia: Require that all vehicles carrying more than 10 passengers (buses) and transporting children to and from school and school related activities, including, but not limited to, Head Start programs and day care centers, meet the school bus structural standards or the equivalent as set forth in 49 Code of Federal Regulations Part 571. Enact regulatory measures to enforce compliance with the revised statutes. (H-99-22)
Review your State and local laws and, if applicable, revise them to eliminate any exclusions or exemptions pertaining to the use of ageappropriate restraints in all seat belt-equipped vehicles carrying more than 10 passengers (buses) and transporting school children. (H-99-23)
Adopt the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Guideline for the Safe Transportation of Pre-school Age Children in School Buses, distribute the guideline to all school bus operators transporting preschoolage children to and from school or school-related activities, and encourage those operators to implement the guideline. (H-99-24)
To the National School Boards Association; the National Association of Independent Schools; the National Conference on School Transportation; the National Parent Teacher Association; the National Association of Child Care Professionals; the National Child Care Association; the National Head Start Association; the Young Men's Christian Association; the Young Women's Christian Association; the American Baptist Churches in the USA; the National Baptist Convention of America; the Southern Baptist Convention; the Church of the Brethren; the Catholic Bishops; the Christian Reformed Church; the Christian Schools International; the Episcopal Church, USA; the First Church of Christ, Scientist; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; the American Lutheran Church; the Lutheran Church in America; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the United Methodist Church; the United Methodist Church Communications; the African Methodist Episcopal Churches; the Church of the Nazarene; the Presbyterian Church in America; the National Office of the Presbyterian Church, USA; the Seventh Day Adventist Church; the United Pentecostal Church International; the National Association of Evangelicals; the Foundation for Evangelism; the Unitarian Universalist Association, the National Association of Church Business Administration; the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; the United Jewish Communities; the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America; the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations; the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States; the American Buddhist Congress; the Nation of Islam; the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha America; the American Atheists; and the American Ethical Union:
Inform your members about the circumstances of the accidents discussed in this special investigation report and urge that they use buses built to Federal school bus structural standards or the equivalent to transport children. (H-99-25)
To the Community Transportation Association of America:
Inform your members of the circumstances of the East Dublin, Georgia, accident and of the added safety benefits of transporting children by school bus, and encourage them to use buses built to Federal school bus structural standards or equivalent to transport children. (H-99-26)