WASHINGTON -- Children are at far more risk traveling to and from school in private passenger vehicles -- especially if a teen-age driver is involved -- than in school buses, says a new report from the National Academies' Transportation Research Board. Bicycling and walking also place students at greater risk than traveling by school bus. National data assessing the risk of different modes of school transportation need to be made available to help parents, students, and officials at the state and local levels make more informed decisions regarding safety, said the committee that wrote the report.
"Each state, school district, and private school must assess its own situation and circumstances," said committee chair H. Douglas Robertson, director, Highway Safety Research Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "The goal is to improve the safety of all children traveling to and from school, and to provide information to communities so that they can make informed choices that balance their needs and resources."
Every year, about 800 school-age children are killed in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours -- weekday mornings and afternoons during school months -- accounting for about 14 percent of the 5,600 child deaths that occur on the nation's roadways. Of these 800 deaths, only about 2 percent are school-bus related, while 74 percent occur in private passenger vehicles and 22 percent are the result of pedestrian or bicycle accidents. More than half of all deaths of children between age 5 and 18 occur during normal school travel hours when a teen-ager is driving.
When students are injured or killed in crashes involving school buses, the link to school travel seems obvious, but when such casualties occur while traveling to and from school by other modes of transportation, the association is often not made. Congress asked the National Research Council to study the safety issues posed by all travel modes so that an accurate comparison could be made.
The report considered six transportation modes. In assessing buses, the committee looked at school buses as well as public transit buses and motorcoach services. Passenger vehicles were divided into two categories, those driven by individuals 19 or older and those driven by operators under 19 years of age, mostly students. Data on pedestrians and bicyclists traveling to and from school also were examined.
The dramatic difference in risk across transportation modes at the national level suggests that more can be done to manage and reduce those dangers, the committee said. School districts should facilitate travel by safer modes while working to improve others that are less safe. For example, walking and bicycling could be made safer by improving sidewalks and protection at street crossings as well as building more bike paths. A dialogue among parents, schools, and other relevant organizations also needs to be established, encouraging collaboration to promote safe practices for students using all modes.
To help identify the risks of school travel, the committee developed a risk-management framework. This framework should be included among the tools used to make decisions on locations of schools, changes in the amount of student parking provided, or changes in the area serviced by school buses. For example, increasing the distance that students must live from school to qualify for school-bus service may save money but it also shifts children to travel modes that are less safe. Alternatively, providing school-bus service for middle school children attending after-school activities could reduce the risk of injury and fatality significantly. These examples, however, are based on national averages and do not reflect the variations that exist on a local or school-district level.
More research and evaluation are needed to provide local decision-makers with better guidance on how to reduce school travel risks, the committee said. Data limitations also pose problems. At present, a lack of uniformity in local- and state-level data hinders risk analyses in individual school districts. National data provide helpful insights, but could be improved by using consistent definitions. Before gathering new data, however, the cost-effectiveness of doing so needs to be examined.
The study was sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under congressional charter. A committee roster follows.
Copies of The Relative Risks of School Travel: A National Perspective and Guidance for Local Community Assessment are available for free on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Printed copies will soon be available for purchase from the Transportation Research Board; tel. (202) 334-3213, fax (202) 334-2519, or e-mail TRBSales@nas.edu>. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Transportation Research Board
Committee on School Transportation Safety
H. Douglas Robertson (chair)
Highway Safety Research Center
University of North Carolina
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