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School buses: How safe are they, really?

Laker Notes


I saw a school bus the other day. You might not think that’s a big deal, but seeing a school bus during the summer is like seeing your teacher at the grocery store. (Grocery stores are filled with tall, narrow aisles to minimize the chances of this happening for the sake of your sanity.)Joel Kwartler

It reminded me of my own school bus rides, cooped up inside what seemed to be a metal tube filled with seats stuffed with some sort of mysterious gray foam, probably asbestos, nuclear waste or a new Monsanto product. The inside never felt all that safe, and I’m not just talking about those fun rides over the Sellwood Bridge.

Thus, I decided to research just how safe a school bus is. (It’s summer, so it was either that or mow the lawn.)

The first thing I learned was that more than 30 federal safety standards applying to buses exist. For example, there’s standard No. 111, “Rearview Mirrors,” requiring various rearview mirrors on the bus. That’s a big deal — nobody with rearview mirrors ever got in an accident.

Then there’s No. 131, “Pedestrian Safety Devices,” requiring school buses to have a stop sign that swings out from the side. Unfortunately, that’s usually counterproductive to safety, as tall pedestrians walking by frequently smash their heads on this suddenly materializing overhanging sign.

My favorite, though, is No. 301, “Fuel System Integrity,” which makes it illegal for the fuel system to extort bribes from riding students.

Furthermore, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) — not to be confused with the State Association of National Directors of Pupil Intrastate Transit Services (SANDPITS) — soothingly explains that since school buses are so large, most crash deaths occur in the other vehicle involved. For some reason, I don’t find that as reassuring as they expect. I also don’t know, then, what happens if two school buses collide.

But don’t overlook the other safety features. Most buses have swing-out emergency windows. They’re rarely used, but bus companies discovered they could save money by not completely attaching the windows and then calling it a safety feature.

Actually, many people open the emergency windows just to get air, since all the other windows are impossible to open. Could you design a worse window-opening mechanism?

“Well, Bob, how should we do the windows? A slide sideways?”

“No, Bill, that’s dumber than a rooster that can’t crow.”

“OK, Bob, what about a slide up?”

“C’mon, Bill, that’s stupider than a lion that can’t roar.”

“Well, Bob, maybe a hand-crank roll-down?”

“Really, Bill, that’s more idiotic than a giraffe that can’t ... uh ... nevermind. Let’s, uh ... put in two metal tabs.”

“Where do the tabs go, Bob?”

“Uh, drill some extra holes wherever.”

“Seems like that’s less useful than a kookaburra with no kook, Bob.”

“Darn it, Bill, at least it’s smarter than the foldout stop signs that keep concussing the pedestrians.”

That’s why the bus driver asks you to close the windows when you get off — he can’t.

And let’s not forget about the safety supply kits. You’ve got the bodily fluids cleanup kit, the first aid kit, the fire kit, the second aid kit, the understudy to the second aid kit and the bodily fluid let’s-spill-’em-again-just-for-laughs kit. The problem with these kits is that they’re strapped to the bus, and in emergencies you wouldn’t waste time getting them. Thus, while these kits give you a false sense of security, they’re only useful for personal emergencies, such as when you forget your bodily fluids at home and need some to get you through the day. These kits are stored in labeled solid-metal lunchboxes, though, so they could be completely empty and we’d have no idea. Heck, for all we know the bus driver got his lunchbox mixed up one day and accidentally ate the first aid kit instead.

Finally, you’ve also got a fire blanket, traffic cones and a broom. Meaning that if you do ever crash, you can place a cone on your head, tie the blanket around your neck, ride the broom and pretend to be a witch.

What’s the verdict? Well, although these safety features may seem old, statistically speaking, school buses are actually the safest mode of transportation to school. I’m glad to say I’ve always arrived safely when aboard a bus (even that Sellwood Bridge trip; I may have been wet, but I was still safe). So, for all the bad rap as uncomfortable, large, traffic-stoppers, school buses get it done. And considering the recent tragic transportation headlines, that’s no laughing matter.

Joel Kwartler writes a regular column for the Lake Oswego Review. Kwartler will be a Lake Oswego High School senior in the fall. To contact him, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



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