Detroit schools are either back in session already or getting ready to begin. How kids get there (the district’s chronic absentee numbers suggest that many don’t) is an open question that impacts their safety. Most Detroit schools don’t provide buses for all students, and only about 20% of Detroit children take a traditional yellow bus to school

Over the years, parent protests, advocacy groups and federal regulations have drastically changed a ride on the school bus. Let’s rewind and look at the ways public safety measures have shaped the bus ride to school. 

In 1973, the Detroit Free Press called out state regulators for being “indifferent” to student safety on the ride to and from school, even as the state maintained that the three fatalities and about 100 injuries the year before were lower than if those kids had been driven to school. The Center for Auto Safety reported at the time that the majority of fatal incidents involving school buses and children happened when children — most of them under age 10 — were struck by vehicles as they crossed the street to get on or off the bus.

Because the death-to-ridership ratio of fatal incidents was relatively small, the Department of Transportation believed “there [were] just too few injuries and deaths to really worry about,” according to Center for Auto Safety researcher John Hubbard. Parents and advocacy groups argued that these deaths were preventable and only basic changes were needed.

In 1977, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) established new safety standards for buses built after April 1 of that year. Most students had to wait for these buses until their districts retired the older models.

The difference was significant. For example, seats used to have exposed metal frames, with another metal bar separating the front seats from the bus drivers — critics called them “tooth chippers” because students would hit the bars and injure themselves. The 1977 NHTSA standards called to replace these bars with padded seat backs. The standards required bars at the front of the bus to be replaced with plexiglass to keep students from falling forward during an accident or sudden stops. 

Into the 1980s, seat belts became a hot topic for debate. Some transportation officials, like then-Southfield Public Schools (SPS) transportation supervisor Doreen Shewell, believed seat belts on buses weren’t necessary and could even be hazardous. When an SPS bus without seat belts crashed into a tree in October 1983, two of the 50 students on the bus suffered minor injuries. According to Shewell, most students stayed safe because of a design called “compartmentalization,” which included a stronger bus frame, stable windows and padded seats. But some parents, like Ann Williams, believed that seat belts would save children’s lives in case of an accident. In 1984, Williams’ 3-year-old son was the only passenger on a Rochester school bus when it rolled over into a ditch. He was required to wear a seat belt due to a disability and walked out of the accident unharmed. Williams became a representative for the National Coalition for Seatbelts on School Buses as a result. Today, most large school buses still don’t have seat belts because other features have proven to keep students from dying during crashes. Smaller buses are required to have seat belts.

Riding a school bus is one of the safest modes of transportation today — according to the NHTSA. Late last school year, a seventh grader in Warren grabbed headlines when he acted fast and stopped his school bus from crashing after the driver passed out, keeping his classmates safe. Even when a bus did crash, children on school buses accounted for less than 1% of all traffic fatalities. Between 2012 and 2021, 113 people died in school transportation vehicle crashes. 

Dangers outside of the bus do continue to pose a threat for students. A 12-year-old student was killed in February after being struck by a school bus in Wayne, an Ypsilanti school bus was hit by gunfire while dropping off students in May, a drunken driver struck a school bus head-on in South Lyon last December (none onboard the bus were injured).

Getting to school without a bus may be more dangerous. Since 2018 the number of statewide fatal traffic crashes has increased, as has the number of cyclist deaths. Pedestrian deaths were following the same trend, but dropped from 2021 to 2022, the latest year data is available. 

Parents looking for options to get their kids on a bus to school can check out this guide from Outlier Media and Chalkbeat Detroit.

Alex (she/her) is an urban studies and public history student at Wayne State University and a Detroit Documenter. She has a special interest in researching Metro-Detroit history and seeks to connect current issues with historical context to find solutions. She believes we must understand our past to...