New federal safety rule for electronic stability control misses the bus

The requirement for ESC on heavy trucks should have included school buses

Published: June 26, 2015 12:00 PM

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has enacted a new rule that would require electronic stability control, or ESC, on many types of heavy trucks, including tractor trailers and intercity buses. The rule has the potential to save many lives. But much to our dismay, school buses were exempted from the requirement.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, lobbied for ESC on school buses during this rulemaking process. ESC is a proven, significant life-saver on cars and light trucks, on which the technology has been mandated for several years. Other safety organizations such as the National Transportation Safety Board and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety agree.

The final rule acknowledges Consumers Union’s comments, but regards our position on the benefits of electronic stability control to school buses as “speculative,” since nearly three-quarters of “large bus” fatalities are related to cross-country travel in motor coach type buses, not school buses. However, it is precisely this type of travel where electronic stability control offers the most benefit for school buses, as well.

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School-bus crashes that tend to have the most potential for causing injury or fatality often take place on roads with higher posted speeds as kids are transported to extracurricular activities or field trips, not the slow, multiple-stop routes typical of going to and from school.

The lack of a verifiable benefit is also due to the fact that school buses are a very safe mode of transportation and thus don’t show a “present safety need” in NHTSA’s opinion. Indeed, school buses are quite safe. It’s been estimated that a kid riding in a school bus is eight times less likely to be killed than when riding in a car.

Nevertheless, school-bus crashes do happen, and even if relatively few of them involve a driver losing control or the bus colliding with an obstacle or rolling over, we believe electronic stability control would help prevent those crashes. A technology that could aid a vulnerable population, such as children, is always worth taking seriously.

The very fact that electronic stability control has proved useful in small and large vehicles and is valued enough to spread its benefits to most other vehicles on our highways supports the case for applying the technology to school buses.

The coach and public-transit bus industry will realize the safety benefits from electronic stability control. NHTSA pointed out in the rulemaking that even without the new rule, 80 percent of large intercity buses will likely be equipped with electronic stability control by 2018. Applying that technology to school buses seems a logical next step. For a modest cost of just $269 per bus, based on NHTSA estimates, we feel the benefits justify the expense. When amortized over the service life of the typical school bus, the per-year and per-student costs are nominal.

We recognize that NHTSA’s top priority right now is reforming its seriously flawed process for identifying safety defects. However, we think those efforts shouldn’t preclude the agency from issuing the strongest possible safety standards.

Gordon Hard

Photo: NHTSA

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