When a Florida school bus taking elementary school students home last year collided with a tractor trailer, a dozen children were injured and 9-year-old Aaron Beauchamp died. The Florida Highway Patrol investigation revealed that Aaron was wearing a safety belt that was too loose and threw him out of his seat.
In Chicago yesterday, 39 people were injured -- mostly children -- when their elementary school bus collided with an SUV and flipped over. Similar violent accidents involving school buses happen around the world on what seems like a daily basis. There were school bus fatalities last week in Nebraska and Tennessee.
According to the National Traffic Safety Administration, School Buses are "one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States." If school buses are so safe, why are so many children being hurt?
Florida law requires school buses that transport public school students have safety belts. But the law only applies to buses purchased new after December 30, 2000. Many older buses are still in service.
The law also puts the entire legal responsibility for wearing and properly adjusting seat belts on the child. There is complete legal liability immunity in Florida to any school bus driver, the school board, teachers and volunteers when a child is injured in a school bus accident for failing to buckle up or adjust the safety belt correctly.
As a Florida children's injury attorney, I believe that placing both the safety and legal burden in the hands of children instead of adults who are paid to take care of them is just wrong. How can an elementary school child be held responsible for using a seat belt correctly? School bus drivers should be mandated to inspect that each child has his belt correctly on before driving away. Yes, that will take time, but what is the purpose of having seat belts on school buses if they are not being used or adjusted correctly?
In Florida, getting on and off the bus is even more dangerous. According to the Florida Department of Education, more than 21,000 drivers illegally pass school buses on any given day. That disgraceful statistic means that nearly 4 million school bus related traffic violations are committed by Florida drivers during a typical school year. Any time that a school bus stop sign is ignored, a child is in danger.
A quick reminder of Florida's school bus traffic rules: If you approach any school bus displaying a stop signal, from any direction, come to a full stop while the bus is stopped and do not pass until the signal has been withdrawn. However, when there is a median or physical barrier separating traffic, oncoming vehicles are not required to stop.
October 22-26, 2012 is National School Bus Safety Week. This gives us an opportunity to focus on teaching our children how to use school bus seat belts and to safely get on and off the bus. And for Florida's drivers to obey school bus stop signs. It is everyone's responsibility to make sure that our children get to and from school safely.