What's the safest way to send your children to school?
Is it packing them off in your friendly neighbor's crowded carpool van?
Or is it loading them onto the big yellow school bus filled with a noisy bunch of energetic youngsters?
The carpool may sound more comforting, but federal transportation statistics indicate that riding the bus is one of the safest forms of ground transportation.
Still, officials want to make it safer.
There have been tragic accidents involving school buses. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that an average of 33 schoolchildren die in traffic accidents involving school buses each year--most of them after they've left the bus or just before they get on.
Those figures are low compared with the thousands of children who die in other types of motor vehicle accidents, according to the NHTSA.
Nevertheless, federal highway officials say they are taking the school bus safety issue seriously. Research is underway in the nation's capital to develop a comprehensive program to enhance the safety of those youngsters both on and off the bus.
Announcing the study in August, Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater said that "safety is President Clinton's highest transportation priority. We are committed to providing the nation's schoolchildren with the safest school transportation possible."
"There's a lot of concern if anyone dies in school bus accidents," said Liz Neblett, NHTSA spokeswoman. "If there's any way we can prevent deaths, we want to do it."
The 1994 death of 7-year-old Tommy Lanni, who was struck by a pickup after he got off the school bus in Laguna Niguel, led to the California state law that requires school buses to use flashing red lights to alert traffic to halt every time a bus is loading or unloading passengers.
The major focus of the federal transportation agency study will be on how to protect pedestrians, because the number of schoolchildren killed getting on or off a bus is three times higher than the number who die as bus passengers.
But the number of children injured on buses also worries officials. NHTSA estimates that there were 8,500 injuries to school bus passengers each year from 1988 through 1996. While 7,285 of the injuries were minor, almost 900 were classified as moderate and 350 were labeled serious or critical.
So the controversial question of whether seat belts should be required for the 23.5 million schoolchildren who ride public school buses a year will also come under close scrutiny.
It has been a hot issue. While some believe that belts would protect youngsters, federal transportation officials and most school districts are opposed to the idea.
People are accustomed to buckling up for safety in their own vehicles and figure it should be the same way for their kids on the school bus, Neblett said.
But large buses are built on the concept of compartmentalization, which means they are strong, well-padded and well-anchored to protect passengers. In fact, Neblett said, experts are concerned that requiring kids on a bus to belt up could actually cause injuries. A two-point lap belt, for example, could cause a child to jackknife into the seat in front of her in an accident, one senior federal official said.
There's also the concern that young or disabled children could not quickly get out of their seat belts to exit the bus in case of an emergency.
And a study at the University of Southern Florida concluded that school kids don't always buckle up. Some children, in fact, vandalize the belts or use them to hit schoolmates over the head.
School officials nationwide who oppose the use of seat belts contend it would be too costly to install them in buses, especially if statistics don't justify their use.
Antonio A. Rodriguez, transportation director for Los Angeles Unified School District, said he welcomes further research into whether seat belt requirements would be an effective safety measure for school buses. But accident statistics in the district don't indicate that a lack of seat belts has compromised safety, he said.
At the federal level, the transportation agency has already begun funding programs to help improve drivers' safety training and to teach children how to be safe both on and off the bus.
Parents who send children off on the bus every day should also take the time to make sure the ride is safe.
Observe the driver. Does he or she drive too fast, or fail to follow safety regulations? Does the driver maintain control on the bus, or are kids out of control and out of their seats?
Listen to what your children say about their bus ride.
I'll never forget the time my children and their friends came home with a hair-raising story about the driver who stopped the bus and walked to the back to scold some ill-behaved kids. He apparently forgot to set the brake and the bus began rolling backward. He managed to stop the bus, but parents who heard the story were horrified and took their concerns to school officials. The driver eventually found a new job.
If you're worried about conduct on the bus, vehicle maintenance or driving conditions, alert your children's school.