Despite the accident Monday afternoon that killed a 9-year-old, injured 15 students and a driver and sent shock waves through the Treasure Coast, transportation experts both locally and nationally maintain school buses are safe.
"The school bus is the safest form of transportation in America," said Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation in Albany, N.Y.
More than 40,000 Treasure Coast students ride school buses each day and statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate that while about 26 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade ride school buses nationwide, an average of five students are killed each year while on a bus.
Martin called it "kind of a Catch-22: School buses are so safe that, whenever there is a student fatality on a bus, it makes headlines."
Since Aaron Beauchamp of Port St. Lucie, a fourth-grader at Frances K. Sweet Elementary School in Fort Pierce was killed when a St. Lucie County school bus collided with a tractor-trailer rig at Okeechobee and Midway roads, the headlines have kept coming — "Child dies in bus crash," "5 children remain in critical condition," "Community mourns Aaron" and "Agencies to meet on fatal bush crash."
But such headlines are rare: Beauchamp is only the fourth Treasure Coast child to be killed in a school bus crash in the past 28 years:
Eight-year-old Victor "Jay" Dixon Jr. of Sebastian was killed Jan. 25, 1999, when the school bus he was riding in ran a stop sign and collided with a citrus truck. The truck driver also was killed.
Jonathan Douthitt, 10, of Port St. Lucie, and Raimie Finn, 12, of Jensen Beach, were killed on Sept. 27, 1984 when their private school bus stalled on the Walton Road crossing seconds before a 33-car Florida East Coast Railway train plowed into it.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 800 school-aged children are killed in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours. Of those, only about 20 are school bus-related.
"The kids may fear riding the bus again (after Monday's fatal accident), and that's understandable because they were there and you can't change that," said Don Carter, St. Lucie County School District's transportation director. "But if you look at the odds, the bus is still and is gonna be the safest form. It would be a shame if a kid wound up riding in a vehicle or some other route less safe because of that."
Treasure Coast school district officials say they keep track of all incidents and accidents, from minor fender benders to minor bumps like a damaged mirror and small scrapes. Most of the local incidents are minor and according to logs provided by school officials, there were 143 reported incidents combined last school year and for the current school year through early March, the three school districts reported 99 incidents.
Of the fatalities among school bus passengers, Martin said, "two thirds of the time the fatality occurred to a person in the impact zone of the crash, where nothing could have been done to save that life."
So far, state and local authorities investigating the crash have not said where Aaron was sitting at the time of the crash; but Martin added, "my guess is, and statistics show, that there's a 66 percent likelihood that he was in the direct impact zone."
Martin said the low number of school bus fatalities can be attributed to several factors.
"First and foremost," he said, "school buses meet more federal safety standards than any vehicle on the road."
Martin said large school buses are designed to provide crash protection through a concept known as "compartmentalization," which creates a protective envelope around riders thanks to strong, closely-spaced seats with energy-absorbing seat backs.
Local school officials agree Monday's accident could have been more tragic.
"Even with the unfortunate tragedy with the child killed in the accident and some of the other children being seriously injured," Indian River County School District's Transportation Director George Millar said, "when you look at how many students were on that bus at the time, had it been a smaller vehicle or a vehicle not constructed as well a school bus is constructed and being impacted by a semi tractor-trailer, I think the injuries could have been much more devastating."
Noting that there "were kids walking off the bus" after the accident, Carter said, "to see that impact, if it was your car or your minivan there wouldn't be anyone walking."
The seat belt issue
Florida is one of five states that also requires additional restraints for school bus riders.
Florida, New York and New Jersey require lap belts. Texas and California require lap and shoulder belts like those required in automobiles.
"Florida started requiring lap belts on school buses on Jan. 1, 2000," said Mark Eggers, bureau chief of school business services at the Florida Department of Education. "There's not a lot of
data available to show the impact the restraints have had, fortunately, because there haven't been a lot of accidents to study; but there is some information we can draw on that say they help reduce injuries, particularly in rollovers."
The 2005 model school bus involved in Monday's crash is among them. Information has not been released as to whether Aaron or the other students injured in the recent accident were wearing their seat belts.
Eggers said state law requires students to wear lap belts while they're riding in school buses, but it's up to individual school districts to come up with ways to enforce the law.
"When school buses are leaving school campuses or a bus stop, our drivers are responsible for reminding students to fasten their lap belts and buckle-up," Joe Flanagan, the Martin County School District transportation director, said in an email to Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. "They will repeat this reminder to students during the bus route, if it is necessary."
Millar said Indian River County bus drivers remind students to wear the seat belts.
"We want (students) to wear them, but you have to remember you have a driver and they might have anywhere from 45 to 71 students on that bus," Millar said, "and it's difficult to make sure every student is wearing that seat belt 100 percent of the time. You can't tell if a child has their seat belt on or not when they're in their seat and you're up in the driver's compartment."
Eggers said there's "currently no initiative" to require over-the-shoulder restraints in school buses.
Carter thinks the federal government eventually will require seat belts on all school buses.
"I think most states are looking for the science and the direction to say maybe compartmentalization isn't the absolute best," he said, "and if we think we can do better, we're gonna do it."
School bus physics
At more than 25,000 pounds, plus more when loaded with passengers, a full-size school bus is larger and heavier than most vehicles it might collide with on the road.
Buses are required to meet 37 different federal safety standards, including protective roofs to withstand rollovers, strong bodies capable of enduring severe side impacts and protected fuel tanks that don't puncture during crashes. Heavily padded bus seats are designed to absorb the forces from a crash and pass on as little as possible of the crash force to its passengers.
"The laws of physics tell you that most of the time a bus is going to come out well, and the passenger survival rate will be high, in a crash with a smaller vehicle," Martin said.
School bus crashes with fatalities tend to involve collisions with bigger vehicles, such as the semi-trailer rig in Monday's accident.
Adding to school bus safety, Martin said, is the fact that most people on the road recognize that the big, yellow bus they see could be full of children and should be afforded special consideration.
"There are only two kinds of vehicles that legally can stop traffic," Martin said. "One is a police car; the other is a school bus. Yeah, the law says you're obligated to pull over and make room for a firetruck with lights and sirens; but when a school bus puts on its lights and spreads out its stop signs, you have to stop immediately."
Finally, there's the "human element," Martin said.
"The school bus driver is a very integral part of the vehicle's safety," Martin said, "if they're well-trained and make smart decisions on safety."
Martin admitted he didn't know the details of Monday's fatal accident, "but my guess," he added, "is that there was some sort of human error involved."
The St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office, Florida Highway Patrol and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident and have not charged bus driver, 56-year-old Albert A. Hazen, or Charles T. Cooper, 24, of Martinsville, Va., driver of the 1998 Peterbilt semi-trailer rig.
Carter called Monday's fatal accident "as terrible as you can come up with, especially with all the connections, and it makes no sense and it's not going to make any sense. It's going to affect everybody around here for a long time."
LOCAL SCHOOL BUS TRAGEDIES
In the past 28 years, four Treasure Coast children and one adult have died in three crashes involving school buses.
Sept. 27, 1984: Jonathan Douthitt, 10, of Port St. Lucie, and Raimie Finn, 12, of Jensen Beach, were killed when their private school bus stalled on the Walton Road crossing seconds before a 33-car Florida East Coast Railway train plowed into it.
Jan. 25, 1999: Victor "Jay" Dixon Jr., 8, of Sebastian, was killed when his school bus ran a stop sign and collided with a citrus truck in Indian River County. Truck driver, Sammie Lee Hughes, 63, also died in the accident, which injured 15 other students and the bus driver.
March 26, 2012: Aaron Beauchamp, 9, a fourth-grader at Frances K. Sweet Elementary School in Fort Pierce died and 15 students and the bus driver injured when the St. Lucie County school bus collided
with a tractor-trailer rig at the intersection of Okeechobee and Midway roads.
SCHOOL BUS SAFETY TIPS FOR PARENTS AND STUDENTS
For more than 23 million students nationwide, the school day begins and ends with a trip on a school bus. The greatest risk is not riding the bus, but approaching or leaving the bus.
To be safe when they travel to and from school, here are some key safety tips parents and students should discuss and follow:
At the school bus stop:
Arrive at the bus stop about five minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive.
Follow instructions from your bus driver or the school district about where to wait at your assigned bus stop.
Wait in a safe place away from the road.
Do not run and play while waiting for the bus to arrive.
Never sit on the roadway while waiting for your bus.
Never speak to strangers at the bus stop and never get into the car with a stranger. Always tell your parents, the bus driver or another responsible adult as soon as possible if a stranger tries to talk to you or pick you up.
Loading or unloading from the bus:
As the bus is approaching, watch for the red flashing lights and the stop arms to extend.
When the bus stops, wait for the driver's signal that it is safe to cross the road or board the bus.
If crossing the street, look left, right and left again. When the driver signals that it is safe, walk at least 12 feet in front of the bus where the driver can see you.
Never walk behind the school bus.
Never run after the bus.
Hold the handrail while going up and down the stairs.
Go directly to your bus seat and remain seated during the entire ride.
Exit the bus only at your assigned bus stop.
If you drop something near the bus, tell the bus driver. Never try to pick it up first, because the driver may not be able to see you.
Parents or guardians of small children should wait with them in the morning and meet them at the bus stop in the afternoon.
Riding in the school bus:
Keep hands, arms and head inside bus.
Always buckle up properly if your school bus has safety belts.
Stay in your seat and obey the driver.
Remain seated at all times and keep the aisle clear.
Stop talking and remain silent when the bus comes to a railroad crossing so the driver can hear if a train is approaching.
Avoid any loud or disruptive behavior that could distract the bus driver from safely operating the bus.
Be courteous and respectful to your driver. Safely getting you to and from school is a tremendous responsibility that the driver takes very seriously.
SCHOOL BUS SAFETY TIPS FOR MOTORISTS
Motorists are advised to exercise patience and caution, especially around children and school buses.
Here are some of the safety practices to follow:
When approaching a school bus that is stopped with its red lights flashing and its stop arms extended, motorists are required to stop in nearly every instance.
Be alert and watch for children at all times, but especially near schools, bus stops, school buses and in school parking lots.
Obey all traffic laws and speed limits, paying extra attention to the lower speed limits in school zones.
Do not pass other vehicles in school zones or at crosswalks.
Do not change lanes or make U-turns in school zones.
Watch for and obey signals from school crossing guards.
Do not text or use a cellphone while driving.
Only drive or park in authorized areas to drop off or pick up children at school.
For more information on Florida's school bus stop law and penalties for not following the law, go to www.FloridaSchoolBusSafety.gov .
THE BIG YELLOW SCHOOL BUS
School buses are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in avoiding crashes and preventing injury. Safety features, many of which are federally required, include:
Padded, high-back, energy-absorbing seats, with requirements for wheelchair restraint systems
Brake systems, which enable the bus to stop in a shorter distance than other large vehicles
Mirrors that allow the driver to see critical areas in front of and along both sides of the bus
Lights and reflective devices that indicate when the bus is loading and unloading passengers
Rollover protection that reduces the likelihood of a roof collapse and allows for operable emergency exits even after the roof is subject to extreme forces
Protected fuel tanks and fuel pump, fuel delivery system, emissions control lines and connections to protect against fuel spills in severe crashes
Emergency exits (doors, windows and roof hatches)
Source: School Bus Information Council
LOCAL INCIDENTS AND ACCIDENTS
More than 40,000 Treasure Coast students ride school buses each day including approximately 9,850 Indian River students, 8,700 Martin County students and close to 24,000 St. Lucie students.
The Florida Department of Education requires school districts to report incidents if property damage or injury claims reach $1,000 but Treasure Coast school district officials say they
keep track of all incidents, from accidents to minor bumps like a damaged mirror or small scrape.
According to incident reports provided to Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, local school districts collect different data and track incidents differently.
The Martin County School District listed 50 minor incidents on its 2010-2011 "accident/incident log" with more half of the incidents reportedly happening at the school district's bus compound. For the current school year through early March, Martin's log includes 34 incidents, many of which happened in school bus loops.
St. Lucie County School District's 2010-2011 "accidents and incidents" log has 78 incidents, consisting of many scrapes, scratches and bumps. The log includes approximate damages and the most costly incident was $1,572.41.
Not including the March 26 fatal crash, for the current school year through March 12, St. Lucie had 51 minor incidents on its 2011-2012 log.
Indian River County School District's "accident reports" don't appear to be as extensive as Martin or St. Lucie's reports.
Indian River Transportation Director George Millar said items listed on the reports were not "necessarily crashes." The district's 2010-2011 school year includes 15 incidents such as a bus hitting a mailbox or fire hydrant. In the current school year through March 9, Indian River has 14 incidents including buses hitting parked vehicles or being hit by other vehicles.