Who Needs to be on the School Bus

As this column has often discussed, the principal justification for school bus service is the fact that children below age 13, and particularly below age 10, do not possess the skills to cross streets or negotiate intersections as a matter of their physical, perceptual, mental and emotional development. These deficiencies have been thoroughly documented, particularly by a 1968 study conducted in Sweden, resulting in a report titled Children in Traffic. Interestingly, these benchmarks correspond to the structure of the modern American school system. Dividing students among elementary, middle and high schools, the first two of these divisions end largely with students aged 10 and 13.

In recent years, limited funding exacerbated by higher vehicle costs, pressure from driver shortages and, most recently, spiraling fuel costs has cut deeply into the provision of school bus service. The two principal ways of rationing this service have been (a) expanding minimum walking distances, and (b) eliminating general education service altogether for high school and, to a lesser degree, junior high school students. A foreseeable consequence of these cut-backs has been the exodus of many of these schoolchildren from school buses to transit buses.

With roughly 15 percent of its trips comprised of home-to-school trips for schoolchildren, the transit industry has taken this responsibility seriously, albeit not always intelligently. An American Public Transit Association survey conducted several years ago found that 80 percent of transit agencies engaged in some form of passenger training for schoolchildren-riders. Many in the pupil transportation community have applauded this training. I myself am troubled by it when it involves kindergarten through fifth-grade students. I draw my line-in-the-sand between the fifth and sixth graderspartly because of the studies and their data. But this position also reflects my experiences, as an expert witness, suggesting that roughly half of all crossing incidents involve incorrect “crossing orientation.” This class of crossers includes adults.

Crossing Orientation and Training

“Crossing orientation” is my term for a key crossing-related relationship between the pedestrian and the vehicle. This orientation is neatly segregated into two groups by the type of bus, its equipment, and the roles that its drivers and third-party motorists must play in crossing safety:

  • On school buses, passengers should cross in front of the vehicle
  • On transit buses, passengers should cross behind the vehicle (which includes letting the vehicles pull out before they cross)

Occasionally, situations make even this stratification problematic. For example, when\C2 a transit bus stops at the near side of a signalized intersection, and the just-alighted passenger finds himself or herself with a green light to cross in front of the bus. Once within the intersection, of course, the light can change, and a third-party motorist occasionally drives alongside the bus and strikes the passenger stepping out from in front of it. Otherwise, the impact that incorrect crossing orientation has on both school bus and transit passengers – of all ages – is disturbing if not haunting:

  • In roughly half of all transit-related crossing incidents, the passengers cross in front of the bus.
  • In roughly half of all school bus-related crossing incidents, the passengers crossed behind it.

Given the expectations of both bus drivers and motorists, one can understand how easily these errors can translate into carnage and mayhem.

Buster the Enigma

A common response to this problems has been a call for training children to use transit.\C2 Even Buster the Bus and his Type-D cousin, Barney, have a transit relative – Toby the Transit Bus. Considering the ease of “sharing” these tools (every school bus fleet has some lift-equipped buses, and Buster and his cousins can simply drive up onto the lift and ride to a neighboring school), I am both surprised and disappointed by how few of them are actually purchased each year. Just the same, the notion of using Toby or any other approach to teach K-5 kids to use transit troubles me: A these students already have enough trouble remembering to simply cross in front the school bus. If you also train these kids how to ride transit, when they alight from either bus, they will immediately be faced with two tricky questions:

  1. What type of bus was I just on?
  2. What type of crossing correlates with that type of bus?

I feel strongly that the reasoning needed to answer both these questions is too rigorous for a K-5 student. The alternative is, appropriately, to keep them on school buses. I feel so strongly about the K-5 Maginot line that I believe it is worth retaining even if we are forced to radically alter the nature of pupil transportation to afford it. Such modifications may include coordinating or consolidating school bus transportation with service to other classes of riders– including adults riding school buses, with or apart from schoolchildren. It is no secret that two federal-funded projects have examined this approach as one of many solutions to public transportation where service for narrower ridership groups is not affordable. With the dynamics of our quickly-changing economic environment, we will almost certainly have to morph into some new forms in order to keep many of our K-5 kids on the yellow bus.

Embracing the Target

In the past, the school bus community has faced these fiscal realities with blinders on. Efforts to discuss these realities have been shut down cold at every National Congress on School Transportation. Even worse, apart from discussions about equipment, no National congress or conference has ever engaged in a serious discussion about crossing procedures in its entire 70-year history. This disregard is reflects a degree of denial that is dangerous and costly. Deluded by crossing statistics that fail to factor in vehicle-pedestrian collisions involving third party vehicles, we have justified our failure by mischaracterizing it. Beyond our undercounting the number serious crossing accidents, each year in the United States there are 52,800 non-family abductions.

As a community, we are a few dollars-a-barrel and melted ice caps away from some genuinely hard choices. So as we face a future with more, and more diverse, financial challenges, we must remember to prioritize our most critical needs. Among them is the need for children below age 10 to travel to and from school by school bus – even if it comes at considerable cost, effort and change. If we must draw a line in the sand, these students need to be on our side of it.

Publications: School Transportation News.