Crowded School Buses

School officials on the Mississippi Gulf Coast say while school buses are safe, crowded buses on some routes can create problems.

``When you look at the total number of children who ride a bus compared to the number of injuries, it's incredibly safe,'' said Jim Lucas, transportation director for the Jackson County School District. ``They're one of the most safe vehicles on the road,'' said Pat Donald, acting superintendent of the Long Beach School District. Nationally, when comparing the number of fatalities of children ages 5 through 18 during normal school transportation hours, school buses are 70 times safer than passenger cars, light trucks and vans, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Lucas said that because buses are made of steel and are higher and bigger than other vehicles, they are hard to damage. Lucas said about 8,000 students ride the bus each way in Jackson County, making for 16,000 rides a day and almost 2.9 million rides a year. In a bad year, he said, a district as large as Jackson County may have 15 injuries. School buses are designed for passive safety. The students are protected by the high, padded seat backs in front of them. Buses become less safe when they're overcrowded and students are standing or falling out of their seats.

There is no Mississippi law limiting how many children can ride on a bus. Sgt. Joe Gazzo of the Mississippi Highway Patrol said his office sometimes gets calls about crowded buses, but callers are referred to the school districts. Regina Ginn, with the state Department of Education, said drivers are told to carry only the manufacturer's recommended limit, but there is no law or rule forcing districts to do so. Most large buses carry either 65 or 71 students. That means there is technically room for three students per seat. Lucas said the seats are designed for three students who are each 13 inches wide. That's fine for elementary school students, but it makes a bus with 50 high school students very crowded, even if the number of passengers is below the limit.

Superintendent Henry Arledge of the Harrison County School District said some of his 188 buses occasionally have more than the recommended limit of students. He said drivers and administrators rearrange or add routes within two days to alleviate crowding. ``It's a constant do and redo, a shuffle and reshuffle,'' he said. The greatest danger to buses comes from cars. Of the 262 school bus accidents in Mississippi last year, 240 involved a car. Even though buses are bright yellow and covered in flashing red lights, people often drive carelessly near them, Donald said. He said that motorists often forget that buses stop frequently and that where there is a bus, there are children.