Despite recent mishaps, school buses remain safe


March 15, 1998|By MIKE BURNS

SCHOOL BUSES are arguably safer than any other form of vehicular transportation. They have all manner of flashing lights and stop signs aboard, and a distinctive yellow coat that virtually shouts out "Caution. Children."

Given a choice, most parents would prefer that their children get on the bus rather than walk to and from school. They'd also prefer the bus to ferrying them in a private car.

But that preference for school buses may seem strange in some ways. School buses don't have seat belts for the young occupants, even though it's a legal requirement for private motor vehicles in Maryland. They don't have anti-lock brakes either.

Regardless of rules, school buses are usually in motion again before a picked up child is safely seated. And a noticeable number of school bus drivers don't bother to signal turns, apparently believing their array of brake lights is sufficient to alert other motorists.

Yet the buses are heavier than the average vehicle and driven more slowly -- two factors of physics that improve safety in a traffic accident.

The presumption is that an experienced, trained driver is at the wheel. That's not always the case, as school districts (and their bus contractors) regularly seek replacements for drivers who have left the job.

When a school bus accident occurs, it is a shocking event that challenges our trust in those vehicles delivering their young charges. Although it may seem to happen more rarely than this, an average 1,000 school bus accidents are recorded in Maryland yearly.

When accidents occur, we search for faults in the system and ways to correct them. We examine the credentials and health of drivers. We talk about better traffic signals and markings, more cautious weather decisions, improved equipment. Sometimes we even dare to suggest that school bus drivers' pay be raised to attract more applicants.

But few parents ever make a decision to take their child to school by other means. They still trust the bus for safety, even if the pickup/delivery times aren't always convenient.

Week of accidents

Concern about school bus safety was elevated this past week with three accidents, in Maryland and elsewhere.

A school bus in Anne Arundel County was trapped in floodwater, tipping to one side, after the driver ignored the "Road Closed" sign on the route. The 31 children had to be rescued from the stalled bus by county emergency teams.

In northern Baltimore County, a school bus was struck at an intersection by an ambulance that was rushing to a serious house fire.

And in Montana, two teen-age brothers on a school bus died when it was struck by a train. The railroad crossing signal was working and visibility was good, investigators said, as they searched for other possible causes.

No common finding emerges from these accidents. Driver error is an easy cause to cite, but usually other factors are involved.

Collision in the fog

A serious school bus accident in October on the Eastern Shore prompted some rethinking by school systems in Maryland.

A Talbot County school bus was hit by a tractor-trailer during a foggy morning run, when visibility was severely limited. One person died, 27 were injured.

The fog hazard caught the attention of school bus planners. In spite of a relatively mild winter in these parts, several counties have since delayed or canceled school bus pickups because of fog.

With most kids in the counties now taking the bus to school, this has become a concern.

Children no longer walk to neighborhood schools. Few ride their bikes to school. It is not a matter of physical lethargy, but of elevated fears of parents about safety.

One reason is that sidewalks are often missing in new communities or on the streets leading to those developments. Without sidewalks, children are likely to walk in the streets, and place themselves at greater risk. Without sidewalks, neighbors who could otherwise monitor the safe passage of youngsters are less able to see the children.

Planning for new schools is often devoted to maximizing use of expensive facilities, rather than creating smaller schools in walking distance. Bigger buildings draw students from wider areas. That means more use of buses and school hours dictated by bus schedules.

Sidewalks for Linton Springs

When the parents of Linton Springs Elementary students demand sidewalks for safe passage to their new school in South Carroll, they don't expect that these walkways will be built.

They expect the school system to put their children on the bus.

Carroll bus rules, similar to those in other counties, require that pupils living within a mile of the school walk. But the school board can make exceptions for children traveling dangerous main roads. That's a responsible choice.

Despite the publicized accidents, buses are still the safe preference of most families.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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