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Transcript: Thursday, August 26, 2004, 11 a.m. ET

Back-to-School Transportation Safety

Diane Wigle
School transportation expert for the NHTSA
Thursday, August 26, 2004; 11:00 AM

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. This is accomplished by setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA also investigates safety defects in motor vehicles, sets and enforces fuel economy standards, helps to reduce the threat of drunk drivers, promotes the use of safety belts, child safety seats and air bags, establishes and enforces vehicle anti-theft regulations and provides consumer information on motor vehicle safety topics.

To learn more about making your community safer for kids, visit this NHTSA website at www.nhtsa.dot.gov/safecommunities.

This discussion was about pros and cons of the various transportation options for school kids. Our guest was Diane Wigle school transportation expert for the NHTSA. The transcript follows. Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Fairfax, Virginia: What are school systems doing about a lack of parking for students? Many of the students at my son's school drive the larger SUVs (e.g., Ford Expedition) and they're very difficult to park in the small spaces they provide. Are schools adapting to changing transportation trends?

Diane Wigle: Parking at schools is determined by any given school system. You need to contact your school system to discuss parking availability.


Diane Wigle: Hi, this is Diane from NHTSA and I'm looking forward to a lively discussion.


Silver Spring, Md.: Why are seat belts not required on school buses?

Diane Wigle: Full-size school buses are the safest vehicles on the road today -- they are nearly eight times safer than passenger vehicles. Because of their size, strength and weight, these buses are nearly as tough as tanks. School buses do have a restraint system, but it is different than the one found in passenger vehicles. This is a protective system called "compartmentalization". Essentially, it provides a protective bubble around the students. It involves closely spaced seats and well-padded seat backs designed to absorb the energy of a crash. School buses are designed to meet stringent federal standards. State and local authorities can set additional requirements including the use of safety belts on full-size buses. But our research has shown that lap belts may cause serious injuries, particularly younger kids,in a crash.


Washington, D.C.: Our daughters were able to walk to elementary school, and since their path was through residential areas, we didn't worry too much about their safety. Now they want to walk to the nearby middle school. But they'd have to cross busy commuter roads at crosswalks. This area seems to have a huge number of school-related pedestrian accidents. I know it's a local issue, but what pressure can the federal government put on the state/local level to put more emphasis on this issue?

Diane Wigle: We can provide information to parents and state and local government officials on how to keep kids safe as they walk or bike to and from school. Parents can use these resources to work with their school and local officials to create safe routes to school. For example, we have developed two helpful checklists. A great way to get school and local officials involved in this process is to take part in the International Walk to School Week, which is Oct. 4 - 8, 2004. Go to www.pedbikeinfo.org to download a copy of the checklists and get more information on Walk to School Week.


Clifton, Va.: Allowing teenagers to drive to school is just asking for problems. All teenaged drivers have not developed the necessary car handling skills to handle an unexpected situation. The same can be said for most adult drivers however they do have significantly more experience and are a little more mature hopefully. Letting your student drive the family SUV or pickup truck makes the problem even worse since these are poor handling and braking vehicles. As a high performance instructor for a local car club, I believe the best car for a teenaged driver is an older S class Mercedes turbo diesel with the turbo boost adjusted to its lowest levels. I have taught a few teenaged drivers and found them very responsible. Current driver's ed classes for teenaged drivers are worthless unless you consider the ability to parallel park a safety issue.

Diane Wigle: Teenage drivers are involved in crashes at a significantly higher rate than adult drivers. Given this reality, safety should be the first consideration in deciding when teens drive and what vehicle they drive. High-performance vehicles should be de-emphasized for teen age use. And safety features, such as front and side air bags, should be of utmost importance. Safety ratings for most new and used cars are available at www.safercar.gov. Allowing teenagers to drive to school is ultimately a parental decision. However, it is important to understand that the more teenagers drive, the greater the risk they will be involved in a crash. Also, parents need to remember that a teenager's failure to wear a safety belt can result in death or serious injury when a crash occurs. And, our research shows teenagers use safety belts less often than adults.


Reno, Nevada: My 13-year-old tells me horror stories about the behavior of students on her bus, and how the bus driver does nothing to stop it. Considering the videos of beatings and such that have shown up on the news in recent months, what is the government doing to make sure our kids are safe ON the bus?

Diane Wigle: Each school district is responsible for implementing its own training for school bus drivers and students on proper bus behavior. This training should be done at the earliest time available in the school year to establish appropriate expectations of bus behavior and conduct. It is also important that parents understand and support these rules of student conduct on the bus. We have developed a training course that can help school districts.


Frederick, Md.: I see kids being transported on the large-passenger vans. I thought these were illegal for use by schools. Are there any loopholes that allow private schools or church-run schools to use them?

Diane Wigle: Federal law prohibits the sale of new vans for the purpose of transporting school-aged children. However, once the vehicle has been sold, restrictions are the responsibility of the state and/or local government. Some states allow them to be used, others do not.
However, we believe that school buses are by far the safest way to transport children of any age to and from school or school events.


Reno, Nevada: I'm curious what NHTSA is doing, if anything, about the issue of graduated licenses for teens. Does a policy exist and if so, is it being actively pushed on the state level? As the mother of a new driver and another on the way, I'm wondering where the government stands on limiting the number of passengers a new teen driver can carry, considering the statistics show an enormous amount of fatalities come from new drivers.

Diane Wigle: NHTSA encourages states to pass graduated driver licensing laws. These laws require new drivers to pass through three licensing stages: 1)A permit requiring adult supervision; 2) A provisional stage limiting high-risk driving situations, such as nighttime driving; and 3) A full unrestricted license after a specified period of time. Research has shown these laws to be effective in reducing teenage crashes. You are right that research has also shown that the crash risk increases as the number of passengers in a teen driver's car goes up. Limiting the number of passengers a teenager driver can carry is a important part of a strong graduated licensing system.


Clinton, Maryland: With my hectic work schedule, I'm pretty much forced to drive my young kids to school. The bus is just not a realistic possibility for us. I also have to take my baby daughter to day care. Can you give me suggestions to help make sure all my kids are in the right child safety seats and that I'm using the seats properly?

Diane Wigle: We have a wealth of information on the correct use of child safety seats on our website at www.nhtsa.dot.gov (click on the logo of the child in the safety seat). This includes guidelines on the appropriate safety seat based on the child's age, weight and height. Our website has a listing of state child passenger safety technicians who would be willing to provide guidance to parents and a list of state child passenger safety coordinators. In addition to using an appropriate safety seat for young children, it is equally important that older children are properly restrained in the back seat with either a booster seat or safety belt if old enough.


Oxon Hill, Maryland: A lot of times, I see drivers in a hurry trying to pass school buses that've already stopped with the red lights flashing. I know this is illegal, and dangerous for the kids getting of the bus trying to cross the street!!!

Diane Wigle: All states have laws that forbid drivers from passing a stopped school bus. It is easy to know when a school bus is picking up or dropping off students - the red lights will be flashing and the stop sign extended. Remarkably, more children are killed while getting on and off school buses than while riding in the bus itself! Each time a car illegally passes a school bus, students are put at risk. Of course, many people are in a hurry. But that's no excuse for illegally passing a school bus!


Lorton, Va.: In our school system, the kids are crowded on buses like sardines! They're crammed into the seats or asked to stand, due to a lack of space. Is this safe? Any ideas on how we can get our school system to budge on this overcrowding situation?

Diane Wigle: Bus routes are determined at the local level. At the beginning of the school year, it may often take a couple of weeks to get all of the students on the correct route. But if standing or overcrowding continues after that, then discuss the issue with the transportation supervisor for the school district. I mentioned "compartmentalization" earlier which is how school buses keep kids safe. But for this to work, the students must be fully seated. If they are standing, they won't be protected as well. Some states have state laws that prohibit standing on school buses. To find out more about your state's laws, contact your state director of pupil transportation at www.nasdpts.org.


Herndon, Va.: Your answer on the 15-passenger vans issue drives me nuts. You know they're dangerous. You send out your yearly warnings about them. And you even pass a law that says they can't be sold to school districts. But only NEW vans. Why not make the law say ANY AND ALL vans can't be used by ANY school, public or private.

Diane Wigle: NHTSA does not have the authority to regulate used vehicles. Congress has given that responsibility to the states.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you do crash testing on buses? What sort of standards do school bus manufacturers have to follow?

Diane Wigle: Yes, we have. Manufacturers have to meet an array of safety standards for school buses.


Maryland: My kids don't ride the school bus anymore because of incidents on the bus with other children. I prefer to drive my kids than have them picked on.

Diane Wigle: This is an important issue today. Many parents are concerned about what happens on school buses. Riding the school bus is a privilege not a right. Having strong policies on proper bus conduct and then enforcing that code of conduct will go a long way to reducing this kind of behavior. Parents should work with school officials and bus drivers to establish and maintain a safe environment on the bus.


Maryland: Sorry, but I don't have a lot of sympathy for the poor kid who can't park his SUV at school. Why should schools even provide parking at all? I thought that's why we paid for buses?

Diane Wigle: School buses are the safest form of transportation for all students! When school buses are available, they should be used. The more parking space that schools provide for students, the more likely they will drive to school. However, the fact is school bus transportation is simply not available everywhere.


Diane Wigle: Thanks to all for your interesting questions and comments.


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