Thursday, December 1, 2016 | Washington, D.C.
Good morning. It is a pleasure to see you all here today and welcome to those watching via webcast as we discuss the safety of pupil transportation.
The safety of our most precious cargo—students, our kids—is a special part of our work at NHTSA, and we are lucky to have such a thoughtful and dynamic constituency devoted to this critical issue. When we think about vulnerable road users, the tendency is to think first of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. But in many respects there is no more vulnerable population than our children.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of school buses transport over 26 million children to and from school, according to the American School Bus Council. That number represents about 50 percent of the K-12 population. School buses travel approximately 5.7 billion miles annually and are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in avoiding crashes and preventing injury as a result of a crash. In fact, school buses remain the safest mode of transportation for children to get to and from school.
But they can be safer. And as the recent tragic crash in Chattanooga reminds us, there is no more heart-rending, dreadful crash than when children are involved. That crash, which killed six little kids from the ages of six to ten, is under investigation by our colleagues at the NTSB and local authorities. But we already have learned a few important things about it. For one, we know that bus didn’t have seatbelts installed.
In November 2015, we announced that, quote, “NHTSA’s policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt,” and we said that the administration would, quote, “seek to use all the tools at our disposal to help achieve that goal.” While this announcement did not create a new rule, it has prompted increased discussion and actions around the installation of seat belts on school buses. It has created a dialogue and efforts that continue to this day. Most notably, a number of school districts have installed seat belts on school buses as a result of this conversation and others are planning to do so in the future.
In our March 2016 meeting with the States, we discussed additional safety issues related to pupil transportation. Today’s discussion is about how to address the safety risks outside of the school bus, including the illegal passing of school buses.
This effort to improve school bus safety is part of another, larger effort that we’re calling the Road to Zero. On October 5th, NHTSA launched a new initiative that will set a course for the goal that many have been working on for entire careers—zero road deaths. We are at a moment in history where this objective can become real, something we can see in a 30-year time frame. NHTSA, along with FHWA, FMCSA, the National Safety Council and 75 other organizations formed a new Road to Zero Coalition. This group will design a future scenario that will describe how emerging technology, together with improvements in roadway design and driver behaviors, can eliminate road fatalities within 30 years.
Think about that. Many of us have worked on this safety mission for our entire career, yet last year there were 35,092 deaths, up more than 7 percent from the prior year. The next generation, our road safety successors, can be the ones to see this problem eliminated during their career.
That is the long-term goal, but the Coalition will also focus on the near term. NHTSA is making $1 million available for innovative safety work for each of the next three years. Some of you were at the Road to Zero kick-off meeting in October. To all, I urge you to join the Coalition and take part in addressing the near-term crisis and the long-term 30-year challenge.
There are many great discussions planned for today on pupil transportation demographics, research, the current range of safety and mobility interventions, and how all of us, government officials, safety professionals, researchers, health care professionals, law enforcement, and others, can work together to improve the safety for pupil transportation. The question and answer periods are particularly interesting an provocative when those interactions push the boundaries of current efforts and help us understand innovative opportunities. Please listen carefully and ask questions that provoke thoughtful discussion and challenge the presenters.
We don’t have to solve every problem through government rulemakings. There are actions that local jurisdictions and states, that PTAs and schools can do on their own today to make school buses safer, both inside and outside the bus. I hope today is the continuation of the nationwide dialogue that we started a year ago.
Thank you all for attending and I look forward to a full day of thoughtful, interesting and provocative discussion about what we can do to enhance the safety of pupil transportation. Our kids are counting on it.