While state and federal programs continue to advocate students walking and biking to school to achieve physical fitness and mitigate traffic congestion and resulting pollution, the children who utilize these modes of transportation are open to significantly more injuries and fatalities than if they rode the school bus.
Eleven percent of all student injuries and fatalities during the school commute occur while walking or biking, says a report published by the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. However, the lack of a universal reporting system for bike or pedestrian fatalities and injuries could mean that incidences are under-reported by 20 percent, according to a Journal of Trauma paper published this year and cited in the Safe Routes report.
A recently released NHTSA fatality report extrapolated for crashes occurring during the morning and afternoon school commutes found that 62 students were killed as pedestrians during the 2007-2008 school year, either walking or biking to or from school. That is 10 times greater than the six fatalities that occurred nationally over the same time period on board school buses as a result of crashes.
Meanwhile, 368 students were killed in other passenger vehicles in 2007-2008.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and Proximity, an economic and demographics information solutions firm, there will be just shy of 53 million K-12 school children in the United States in 2010, and more than 61.5 million children if you factor in 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers. The most recent STN survey of states, which is incomplete due to several states not responding or having outdated numbers of students transported by school districts, estimated that more than 38 million children ride the school bus one-way each school day.
The Safe Routes study found that students who walk or bike to school account for 14 percent of all school commutes and less than two percent of the miles traveled. But, it added, bicycle sales have passed new auto sales in the United States by nearly 1.7 million annually, and more than 70 percent of children ages five to 14 ride a bicycle at some point, though not necessarily to and from school.
However, a lack of safe bike routes, bike safety education, enforcement and infrastructure improvements have resulted in greater risks, which the fatality and injury numbers appear to confirm. The report pointed to five Safe Routes programs in Santa Rosa, Calif., Miami, Maine, Springfield, Mo., and Portland, Ore., where federal and state funds have resulted in bike and/or pedestrian education programs that have helped reduce fatalities and injuries by 32 to 63 percent.
Injuries and fatalities could also see a drop if a call from the National Association for State Directors of Pupil Transportation is heeded. NASDPTS members requested 10 percent of infrastructure funds from the re-authorization of the surface transportation act (SAFETEA-LU) to be set aside for the creation of safe routes to bus stops outside the two-mile radius from school. Currently, the provision is not included in the House version but is contained within the Senate bill.