School buses are the safest way to transport children to and from school, more so than any other means of transportation. That is because school buses are built – inside and out – to protect children. They must comply with federal safety standards developed by Transport Canada which focus on the road worthiness of the vehicle, such as relate to braking, steering, lighting but also on structural, occupant protection, fire retardancy, emergency egress, and systems such as the overhead flashing warning lamps and STOP arm. Federal standards also ensure reduced emissions from vehicle exhaust and fuel systems.
In addition to the federal standards, school buses must also comply with the provincially prescribed school bus safety standards of the Canadian Standards Association (D250) which enhances the safety of the school buses with such features as enhanced emergency exits, mirror and lighting systems to observe students in the danger zone, front crossing gate, and the distinctive chrome yellow colour to improve the visibility of the bus to other motorists.
School bus safety continues to improve as new technologies are introduced. An example of this is the recently mandated Electronic Stability Control, a system of sensors that can recognize and mitigate conditions that could lead to rollover and loss of control.
School buses are designed with a highly effective seat design referred to as compartmentalization. The design is based on keeping the occupant within a protective “compartment” with seats spaced closely together and with high seat backs that are padded and designed to absorb energy during a crash. It is a passive system that does not require any action by the occupant in order for them to be protected. The system has been proven to be effective in protecting children without the use of seatbelts because the system is specifically designed to not require seatbelts.
At the same time, there is acknowledgement that three-point seatbelts (lap and shoulder belts) on school buses, when they are installed correctly and worn properly, can offer an additional layer of safety by reducing the risk of ejection and lowering the risk of serious injury, particularly in the context of collisions involving rollover, side-impact, or vertical lift scenarios. That is why in 2018 Transport Canada implemented regulatory requirements that now governs how three-point seatbelts are installed on school buses. At present, such installations remain optional in recognition of the strong safety record of school buses and the on-going considerations associated with such installation and use (e.g. consequences of misuse, emergency evacuations, liability, seating capacity, use of child seats). Another significant consideration is addressing the driver’s responsibility to ensure that all passengers are using the seatbelts properly.
As school bus safety is a shared responsibility among federal, provincial and territorial (FPT) governments, school bus operators, and a diverse road safety community, in January 2019, the FPT Council of Ministers Responsible for Transportation and Highway Safety established an expert Task Force on School Bus Safety. The Task Force is comprised of FPT governments and the full range of school bus safety stakeholders, including SBO, and is seeking to identify opportunities to further strengthen school bus safety, with an emphasis on seatbelts but also encouraging the development by manufacturers of other occupant protection features.