The school bus industry takes offence at our assertion that school buses are bad for roadtrips.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jun 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

Boy, am I disappointed! I really enjoy you guys, and I always thought you knew a lot about cars. (Since I know next to nothing about cars, this is a leap of faith on my part.) But after reading your recent column, my faith is badly shaken. However much you know about cars, you clearly know next to nothing about school buses. I, on the other hand, know a lot about school buses and am willing, for the good of your readers, to enlighten you.

Now, whether it's a good idea for Raz (who wrote to you) and his friends to play Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters from Seattle to Nevada for the Burning Man Festival is not a question I want to address; but I do want to address some seriously misguided statements you made in your answer. Tom, you are dead wrong, 180 degrees wrong, absolutely wrong, couldn't-be-wronger wrong that "school buses are among the least-safe vehicles on the road." In fact, every organization that keeps statistics, from the National Safety Council to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the National Academy of Sciences, says that school buses are the SAFEST vehicles on the road. Of the 42,000 people who die in traffic accidents every year, only nine are in school buses -- and that includes all the school buses that travel high-speed interstates taking kids on activity trips. Show me any car, van, truck or other vehicle that can match that record year after year. And it doesn't matter how you calculate it -- people, miles or trips -- school buses have dramatically lower fatality and injury rates than any other vehicle.

It's true that school buses are used primarily for slow-speed, short, local trips, but that's not what they are "designed" for. They are designed to protect passengers. The federal safety standards that are unique to school buses ensure that in a crash the roof doesn't collapse, the body doesn't come apart at the joints, the fuel tank isn't ruptured and the passengers aren't ejected or injured by interior surfaces. Now, I grant you that a school bus doesn't handle like a sports car -- or like a sedan, for that matter -- but there are a lot of petite bus drivers who manage them quite well, thank you.

I agree with your final advice. Raz and his friends would no doubt be better off chartering a bus with a professional driver than trying to ferry themselves, no matter how safe the vehicle is. But I'm concerned that your ill-considered opinions and false statements about school buses and vans might influence some of your listeners and readers who think you know what you're talking about.

Consider this: Of the average 815 students who die every year during school transportation hours, only 2 percent take the school bus. The other 98 percent are going to school in private cars, vans and trucks, or are walking or riding bikes. It would be a shame if parents took their kids off of safe school buses after reading your column, because any other way they get to school puts them in much greater danger. You would be doing a public service if you'd do some research -- don't just take my word for it -- and correct yourselves in print. You're big enough guys to do that, aren't you?

Thanks for getting all the way to the end of this. -- Robin Leeds, Regulatory Liaison, National School Transportation Association

TOM: Big enough? Not only are we big enough, but crow is a regular part of our diet!

RAY: We've been deluged by mail from school-bus companies basically saying the same thing -- that school buses are the safest vehicles on the road.

TOM: And from a statistical point of view, that's absolutely correct. And it would be a shame if parents took their children off of school buses, when they are clearly the safest way to get kids to and from school.

RAY: We talked to a bunch of school-bus and vehicle-safety experts in the past couple of weeks to educate ourselves. And we learned that school-bus handling has improved quite a lot over the past decade or so.

TOM: But in our defense, the guy who wrote to us -- Raz -- was asking about buying an old school bus. Innovations like automatic transmissions, power steering, ABS and the like have only become common in the past decade or so. So any bus he was likely to buy would handle much worse than the newer buses that are now in common use.

RAY: Raz also planned on driving the bus across several states with a bunch of his friends in it. Some of the reasons that school buses have so few fatalities is that they're driven by sober, trained drivers, mostly slowly, on well-known, short-distance routes, in broad daylight. None of those conditions would necessarily hold true in Raz's case. That's why we didn't like the idea.

TOM: And while school buses have excellent statistical safety records, the experts we spoke to felt that there is still room for improvement. School buses are very top-heavy and can be flipped over more easily than an SUV if steered incorrectly at high speed. That's why safety experts want to see more and better driver training for drivers who are, often, minimum- or low-wage employees.

RAY: And while school buses have padded seat backs that protect kids pretty well in a front or rear collision, there's very little protection for kids in a rollover. School buses would clearly be a lot safer if they had three-point seat belts for their passengers. Federal standards requiring the use of three-point seatbelts seem to be the way to go.

TOM: But you are correct, Robin. As school transportation, driven by trained drivers, school buses are indeed extraordinarily safe. In fact, in the course of our research, we've been invited to drive a current-day school bus on a slalom course to see just how much they've improved. And we plan on doing that, as long as I get to drive.

RAY: Count me out.

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