By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia
The first day of school, just a few weeks away, can be exciting. New clothes, new book bags, new teachers and, for some, the new experience of riding the big, yellow bus. Before you send your child to the bus stop, be prepared.
"Students are much more at risk traveling to and from school than at any other time during the school day," said Don Bower, a University of Georgia Extension Service human development specialist.
More than 33 children die each year
Millions of children in the United States ride safely on school buses each day. But an average of 33 school-age children die in school bus-related traffic crashes each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"In the 1997-98 school year, more than 800 students (ages 5- 18) were killed on their way to and from school if you include all modes of transportation -- not just school buses," Bower said.
According to the NHTSA, an average of 14 school-age pedestrians are killed by school buses each year, and six are killed by other vehicles involved in bus-related accidents.
Most of those killed in bus accidents are pedestrians 5 to 7 years old. They're hit in the danger zone around the bus, either by a passing vehicle or by the bus itself.
"Many more kids are killed running in front of or behind the bus and getting hit by another car," Bower said. "They can get their backpack caught on the bus handrail and get injured or stoop to pick something up under the bus and the driver doesn't see them."
Follow these safety rules
Get the year off to a good start by reviewing bus-stop safety rules.
Bill Barnett of the Pupil Transportation division of the Georgia Department of Public Safety offers these tips:
* Get to the bus stop 5 minutes before the bus's scheduled arrival. "Kids get hurt when they are rushing to catch a bus," he said.
* Don't play at the bus stop.
* Wait well off the road.
* Dress for the weather.
* Don't start toward the bus until it stops completely and the red lights come on.
* When you get on the bus, use the handrail and take the steps one at a time.
* Cross in front of the bus, far enough out so the driver can see you.
* If you have to cross the street to get on the bus, check for traffic and wait for the bus driver to signal you to cross the road. "After the driver signals, check for traffic again before you cross the road," Barnett warns.
How old is old enough?
Another question parents often face: When is my child old enough to walk to school or to the bus stop alone?
"It all depends on the maturity of the child," Bower said.
It also depends on neighborhood safety.
"A child should not walk to school by himself younger than age 9," Bower said. "They should walk with an adult. But at 9 years old and up, depending on the neighborhood and the distance to school, most mature children should be fine."
The same can be used as a guideline for going to a bus stop alone.
"A parent should walk with the child to school or the bus stop the first few times for practice," Bower said.
Seatbelts on school buses are an often-debated issue, but Bower says full-sized buses are very safe with or without them. Some states require belts on buses, and the NHTSA is reviewing these standards.
The greatest risks to children on school buses are other cars.
The NHTSA warns that in neighborhoods, near schools and at bus stops, drivers need to take special care because children don't behave like adults and may dart out into the road. Watch carefully as children exit a school bus. And wait for the bus to move along before driving forward.
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)