Is Your Kid’s School Bus a Deathtrap?

No seatbelts, no airbags. Just seats.

Amy Stocklein/Getty Images

The things we choose to care about. Peanuts are banned from municipalities. Yoga is banned from college campuses because it was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.” A debate over vaccinations is stoked solely by provably wrong facts. Anxiety over the most minor shedding of tears grips our nation. And so we live in a childproofed world.

Yet, when it comes to school buses, we turn the other cheek. Every school day, parents blithely march 25 million children onto school buses for a round-trip on the only motor vehicle left in America that doesn’t require seatbelts, airbags, crumple zones, or any other safety innovation developed since… well, since cars were invented. How is it that the parents of the world—the hovering, chattering, nattering, fretting, helicoptering neurotics who are at present rearing the Overprotected Generation—have glossed over this stark fact?

The modern school bus, such as the popular IC Bus model built in Lisle, Illinois, is equipped with the following safety features: 1. “Lighted controls for the entrance door,” and 2. a “Leave No Student Behind alarm system.” The former refers to the flashing red lights and miniature stop sign that deploys when the driver opens the bus door; the latter is a klaxon that sounds if there’s a kid hiding in the back at the end of a shift.

On the other hand, the 2015 Volvo S80 is equipped with standard 3-point restraints, front and rear head curtain airbags and front seat-mounted torso airbags, which should make you feel good. It has a “City Safety” suite of collision avoidance systems, and a separate forward collision warning system that takes control of the car if it thinks you’ve lost it. The S80 is a technical dynamo, one of the most advanced pieces of mass engineering in the world. It is designed to protect its occupants from nearly every conceivable collision. We prize that sort of engineering. In fact, the federal government demands it. And why not? When it comes to number one, safety first.

Here’s the weird thing: According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, from 2004 to 2013, there were a total of 83 occupant fatalities in school buses nationwide. That’s an average of 9 deaths a year. Putting that in perspective, there are around 40,000 deaths resulting from car crashes every year. It turns out that the school bus is seven times safer than the second safest vehicle on the road today.

So how did that happen? The answer is maddeningly simple: A school bus is painted bright yellow and adorned in flashing lights and a stop sign. It attracts the attention of other drivers, who are presumably aware that there are as many as 100 school kids on board.

On the engineering side, the explanation is similarly prosaic: a school bus is a heavy vehicle, and it’s occupants are high off the ground. In most low-speed collisions, the interior is relatively peaceful place to be, while the Volvo it hit is torn to pieces below, all eight airbags deployed to save the passengers within. The other reason is that the seats, which are padded and have high seatbacks, act as passive restraints, corralling and protecting the occupants in a frontal collision.

The federal government first mandated seat belts in passenger cars in 1968. Since then, fatalities per car have steadily, if sometimes slowly, declined. Last week, NHTSA finally mandated that school buses join the rest of the road.

In his announcement that all school buses will have a three-point harness, NHTSA’s new director, Mark Rosekind, said, “NHTSA has not always spoken with a clear voice on the issue of seat belts on school buses. So let me clear up any ambiguity now. The position of the NHTSA is that seat belts save lives. That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus.”