School bus safety: Back-to-school tips for parents

As a parent, there’s plenty to worry about as you send your children off to school. Will they get good grades? Will they make friends? Will they stay out of trouble?

However, there is a bigger fear many parents have when their kids go to school: Will they be safe on the school bus? After all, most school buses don’t have seat belts. Only eight states require this safety feature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And there are the headline-grabbing accidents that can leave parents wondering whether it would be better to drive their kids to school than chance putting them on the school bus.

Parents’ fears about school buses are understandable, said Darryl Fennell, a student transportation expert with Robson Forensic and executive manager of transportation for Wayne Township Public School District in New Jersey. But those fears are overblown. “School buses have been shown to be the safest transportation mode for students,” he said. “Students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely by traveling by school bus than by car.”

You don’t just have to take Fennell’s word for it. From 2007 to 2016, only 0.4% of fatal motor vehicle crashes were school-transportation related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Furthermore, most of the people who died in those accidents involving school buses actually were occupants of other vehicles involved in the crashes.

When it comes to school bus safety, here’s what you should know and what you, as parents, can do to help keep your children safe while riding a bus.

Why school buses are a safe mode of transportation

Fennell — who has 23 years of experience in school bus operations, logistics and safety — said there are several reasons why school buses are one of the safest modes of transportation. For starters, school buses are highly visible. “A school bus is a big yellow object,” Fennell said. In addition to its bright, hard-to-miss color, a school bus has flashing red lights to draw even more attention to it.

School buses also are built to withstand impacts. “If there’s a crash, it protects the children because of the way the bus is designed and the way the seats are designed,” Fennell said.  A design feature called compartmentalization keeps children safe even without harnesses or seatbelts. The seat backs are high and added and the distance between seats is small to create a compact area – like a carton for eggs – around passengers.

Another key reason why school buses are safe if because bus drivers are highly trained. They must have a commercial driver’s license. To get that license, they must pass stricter training standards than what is needed for a typical CDL, Fennell said.

What parents can do to keep kids safe around the bus

Keeping your kids safe on a school bus begins before they even get on the bus. “One of the first things parents need to do is realize that safety starts at the school bus stop,” Fennell said.

That’s because children are actually more likely to be injured outside a school bus than while riding in a bus. About two-thirds of school bus-related deaths of children occur outside of the bus, according to the American School Bus Council.

To keep your children safe at the bus stop, make sure you get them there at least five minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive, Fennell said. Then you won’t have to rush to catch the bus. “When kids or parents run to get to the bus stop, kids fall,” Fennell said. “Kids have fallen under the wheel of the bus because they’re rushing to get there.”

If your children are young, you should wait at the stop with them. They should stand six feet away from where the bus will stop, Fennell said.  Warn your children not to play in or near the road while waiting. Tell them to wait until the bus comes to a complete stop and the doors open before walking toward it to get on. They should use the handrails as they get on to avoid falling backward out of the bus and as they get off, Fennell said.

Parents should warn their children about the safety zone – the area that’s 10 feet around the bus, Fennell said. If they have to cross in front of a bus, they should stay out of this zone so the driver can see them.  Before even crossing, they should wait for the driver to extend the crossing arm in front of the bus or to signal them that it’s OK to cross. Then they should check the road to make sure no cars are coming.

Tell your children never walk behind a bus. And if your children drop something near the bus, tell them not to bend down to pick it up because they will be out of view of the driver, Fennell said. Instead, they should tell the driver that they have dropped something and need to get it.

You, too, should be careful when driving near a school bus. Keep your distance and don’t get distracted so you’ll notice when the bus is stopping. Never pass a bus when it has stopped to pick up or drop off passengers.

How parents can keep kids safe in the bus

After explaining to your children how to be safe around the bus, spell out what they should – and shouldn’t do – inside the bus. The first thing they should do is find a seat quickly and buckle their seatbelt, if there is one.

While riding the bus, children should sit facing forward. Warn them that although it might be tempting to lean over the back of their seat to talk to a friend behind them or sit on the edge to talk to a friend across the aisle, they could get hurt if they aren’t sitting forward. They also shouldn’t talk loudly on the bus. Even though they’re no longer in the classroom, they should behave like they are and treat the driver like a teacher, Fennell said. “Kids need to listen to the driver,” he said.

And parents need to remind their kids of how they’re expected to behave on the bus. “What kids need is guidance,” Fennell said. “You have to be consistent about what you expect them to do.” The tips you give your kids will hopefully reinforce what they’ve been taught at school about bus safety. If your school does not have a bus safety program, ask the administrators to implement one that will educate all students – the ones who ride a bus on a daily basis as well as students who will have to take a bus occasionally for field trips, Fennell said.

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Cameron Huddleston is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances. She also is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about personal finance for more than 17 years. You can learn more about her at

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