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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 8 | September 14, 2002 Subscribe

Per mile and per trip the lowest death rates are on school buses

School buses are the safest way to get to and from school, a new study finds. Among five transportation modes, the death rates measured per mile and per trip during school hours are lowest on school buses. The death rate per trip is highest in passenger vehicles when a student is driving or being driven by a teenager.

The Transportation Research Board's new study looked at the numbers of children ages 18 and younger who were killed and injured during school travel hours (6 to 9 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m.) while walking, bicycling, riding in passenger vehicles with adult drivers, riding in passenger vehicles with teen drivers, or going by school bus. Student death and injury rates were calculated per mile and per trip to show the relative risks associated with each transportation mode.

School buses accounted for 25 percent of trips to and from school and school-related activities but only 2 percent of student deaths. Fourteen percent of student trips but more than half of the deaths involved teen drivers. On a per-trip basis, students are about 44 times more likely to be killed in a vehicle with a teen driver than while riding on a school bus.

Bicycling is the second most dangerous form of student transportation during school hours, per student trip. Measured per student mile traveled, biking is worse than riding in a passenger vehicle with a teenage driver.

"This is an often overlooked problem we can do something about," says Institute chief scientist Allan Williams. "So many of the bicyclist injuries and deaths could be prevented if more states either adopted helmet laws covering all riders or strengthened the laws they already have on their books."

Student death rates during school travel hours
School bus Passenger vehicle with adult driver Walk Bicycle Passenger vehicle with teen driver
Deaths per 100 million:
Trips 0.3 1.6 4.6 9.6 13.2
Miles 0.1 0.3 8.7 12.2 2.4
Notes: School travel hours are 6-9 a.m. and 2-5 p.m. School bus deaths include bus passengers and child pedestrians hit by school buses. Deaths in passenger vehicles driven by teenagers include teen driver deaths plus deaths of child passengers riding with the teen drivers.

Each year about 700 bicyclists are killed and another 500,000 are injured seriously enough to require a trip to the emergency room. Most of the serious injuries are to the head. Helmets would prevent or reduce the severity of an estimated 70-90 percent of the head injuries.

However, few children wear helmets in the absence of a helmet law. This is clear from a new study conducted in Texas, where no bicycle helmet law is in effect. The study observed children riding bicycles, finding only 14 percent wearing helmets. The use rates were lowest among children younger than 5, the age group that also has the highest bicycle death rates per capita.

Only 17 states and the District of Columbia have statewide laws requiring bicycle helmet use, and most of these laws apply only to riders 15 and younger. In some cases, the laws apply only to bicyclists younger than 12 or 13. About 70 percent of the bicyclists killed each year are 16 or older, "so the helmet use laws should cover adults as well as children," Williams says.

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