Crashing a school bus, head-on, into a transit bus or motorcoach costing five times as much is not a fair test. But it is also a stupid one. As even officials in other bus sectors admit, each mode is uniquely superior in providing certain types of trips. School buses are superior in providing home-to-school transportation because they transport mostly individuals who do not yet have the skills to cross streets and intersections, and help them do so. School buses are not just buses. They are crossing buses. This is not a minor distinction. Crossing is what we do. As a transportation community, crossing is who we are.
Apart from the four percent of all school-related service comprising activity trips, school buses provide home-to-school trips. Yet we do not call them homebuses. For similar reasons, we should not call them school buses. They are not school buses. They are crossing buses. They differ from every other type of bus, and from every other type of bus service, in that they facilitate the passengers’ safe crossing to and from the point where they board or alight from the vehicle. This is not just a distinction. It is the primary justification for our existence. It is also the essence of the service we provide.
Data and Interpretation
While marginally-comparable databases suggest that school buses are the safest mode of transportation for home-to-school travel, this conclusion is not as clear-cut as we have been led to believe. Among the enigmas:
- The three accident databases (FARS, GES and NPTS) employed several years ago by the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the “relative risks” of a variety of home-to-school travel modes found that transit buses fare just as well as school buses.
- A study of New York City traffic fatality statistics (1994 to 1997) found that, per miles driven, cars were involved in 1.36 pedestrian or bicyclist fatalities per million, trucks in 3.21 per million, and buses in 8.8 per million.
- In the small sample of 41 (and counting) crossing accident-related lawsuits in which I’ve been involved as an expert witness, the bus was the “striking vehicle” in fewer than one fourth of them.
Of course, these data mask important details:
- The average transit rider is significantly older than the average school bus rider. Because most transit riders are age 13 or older, they lie above the “cusp” of individuals who have not yet developed the skills to cross streets. In contrast, most school bus riders lie below this cusp.
- Trucks and automobiles do not board and discharge passengers every few blocks. When one factors this reality into the equation, along with the fact that most pedestrian crossing accidents involve passengers either about to board or who have just alighted, the statistics suggest that buses are inordinately safer.
- While my own sampling suggests that there are certainly more than a handful of crossing-related school bus fatalities and serious injuries each year in the United States, the volume of these incidents does not remotely compare to the 52,800 non-family abductions that also occur each year.
In simple terms, while crossing incidents may be the most visible indicator of school bus safety, they are an oversimplification that misses the point. Instead, when relevant considerations beyond the raw data are factored in, the conclusion that “we might as well let ’em ride transit” is preposterous. So it is hardly an embarrassment for us to admit that we have been undercounting our thimbleful of safety failures, even if we have undercounted them considerably. Just the same, to improve these statistics, we must acknowledge the genuine magnitude of failures we experience – as well as the range, depth and variety of failure these failures represent. After all, we cannot justify the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars on a separate transportation system and simultaneously claim it is the passengers’ fault when the system fails to protect them.
Viewing our combined safety-and-security achievements with the details such an examination deserves, one can see how pointless it is to debate whether or not our community is doing a good job or a bad job in crossing safety. The important point is that we can do better. This is because crossing is what we do. It is who we are.
Leadership and Change
The bounty of achievements that school bus service represents did not come from efforts to make every bus and bus system the same. Our vehicles and procedures must obviously share common elements. But these elements did not evolve from imitation. They evolved from a progression of knowledge, perception, thought, ingenuity and experience that produced improvements. And they evolved from focused efforts to examine the failures. It is no secret that the most dramatic improvements in school buses occurred in response to catastrophic accidents. In the hope we need no more of them, we will find our way from the lesser accidents that remain – although they appear to be growing in number. But we must use what we learned from these failures wisely if we are going to reduce their numbers. I am convinced we can. This is because most accidents are not the result of things we don’t know. They are the result of things we don’t see.
Rootie Kazootie and Polka Dottie
Dating myself, my childhood cartoon hero could always track down his kidnapped heroine by following the trail of polka dots that dropped off her dress as the villain carelessly dragged her about. Guess what? Today’s GPS technologies can do this very thing, and much more, with its digital bread crumbs. We can follow our passengers across the street, count them, and even determine if those who crossed should have. This technology is practically begging us to these and other capabilities. But we cannot use these capabilities effectively or fully if we do not fully understand the problems they must resolve. As future installments in this series will illustrate, the elements of operations are many, complex and often deceptive. But if any group of individuals can master this subject, we can. Because crossing is what we do. And crossing is who we are.
Our buses and our passengers are not our distinguishing feature. What sets us apart is crossing. Crossing is what we do. It is who we are.