How safe are school buses?

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(CNN) — It’s a question many Americans have in light of several high-profile bus wrecks from Missouri to Pennsylvania. And if you ask the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) how safe school buses are, you’ll find its answer is a superlative: School buses are the safest method for transporting students to and from school.

In fact, the NHTSA says that traveling by school bus is seven times safer than traveling by car or truck.

For perspective, while more than 30,000 people are killed in traffic crashes every year, six school-age children die as passengers in school buses annually. Of course, the NHTSA — and all of us — want the numbers to be zero. But it shows you how school bus crash fatalities are relatively rare when compared to traffic fatalities as a whole.

Still, questions remain about why there aren’t safety belts on school buses. They’ve been required on passenger cars since 1968, but the government doesn’t feel they’re needed on school buses for several reasons.

For one thing, large buses behave differently in crashes than the cars we drive. What passengers feel during a school bus accident is likely to be significantly less forceful than they do during a car accident. The government also points to compartmentalization as an effective safety measure: The high-backed, cushioned seats we used to ride in continue to protect passengers in frontal crashes.

But seat belt advocates say current safety measures are not enough. The National Coalition for School Bus Safety says the study that the government cites for its data is dated and inadequate. For one thing, seven out of 10 “real world” accidents are not frontal, according to the coalition. And when it comes to side-impact and rollover accidents, the NCSBS says compartmentalization is less effective — and that seat belts are essential to saving lives.

Like many school-related issues, the federal government allows states and districts to set the rules when it comes to seat belts on school buses. One downside is cost: Buses with built-in seat belts are more expensive. And at a time when school systems are looking for ways to cut costs — in some cases, cutting some school bus routes themselves — it’s not likely you’ll see an uptick in the number of buses with seat belts.

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