Advocates say bus underride guards could save lives

Democrat and Chronicle

Written by Justin Murphy Staff writer

Nov. 04

When a Brighton High School student driving three friends plowed into the back of a school bus Oct. 9, there was nothing to stop his car until it sat mangled underneath the bus’ rear bumper.

What if there had been?

Traffic safety advocates say the underride guards that are mandated on semi-trailers would also save lives on buses, including school buses like the one involved in the Brighton crash.

The idea and technology are simple: a metal bar sits beneath the high rear bumper of a bus. A car crashing in from behind will be stopped when its front end hits the bar rather than getting lodged under the bus.

“Car structures are supposed to absorb energy in a way to protect people inside – the front end collapses in controlled way if you have an impact,” said Matthew Brumbelow, senior research engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which advocates for wider use of underride guards. “If you run into something higher off the ground, like a large truck or a bus, you’re bypassing all that structure that’s been built and you end up (crashing with) the windshield area. That creates a much more dangerous situation for the people in the car.”

Daniel Blower, an associate research scientist who studies traffic safety at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, said he believes underride guards on school buses would save lives.

“On school buses, it’s not a common thing, and there’s tremendous opportunity for underride given how high the bumper is,” he said. “In my view this is a safety issue that should be addressed.”

There are no good statistics on how many people are hurt or killed when a car underrides a school bus from behind. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are about 26,000 accidents involving a school bus each year.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s data show about 400 people killed every year when vehicles strike the back of buses and trailers, but there is no more specific number for underride accidents.

“It’s a question we’d like to know the answer to better than we do,” Brumbelow said.

In Brighton, the car driven by 16-year-old John Zakhary was lodged so far underneath the bus it required several hours to extricate.

The Brighton Police Department reconstructed the event, but Chief Mark Henderson did not respond to requests for comment on what difference an underride guard might have made.

Zakhary was issued a number of traffic citations for the accident. One of the passengers, Scott Collins, remains in guarded condition and has only recently begun breathing on his own.

Another question is who could effect the change. The current requirement for underride guards on semi-trailers was put in place by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the federal Department of Transportation.

A change in bus specifications would likely require a federal mandate rather than leaving it up to manufacturers or bus operators, Blower said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declined to comment for this story. First Student, the company that operates Brighton schools’ buses, and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, a school transportation organization, did not respond to phone messages.

The latter organization does address the issue of underride guards on its web site. It uses the same figure of 400 rear-impact fatalities involving large vehicles and extrapolates that mandated use of underride guards would only save one or two lives a year at most.

It also points out that the underride guard could scrape against the ground when a bus is driving on a steep angle.

Brumbelow and Blower agreed the marginal benefit would be less than with semi-trailers but still argued the cost — perhaps several hundred dollars per vehicle — would be worthwhile.

“The incremental cost I can’t imagine would be that much,” Blower said. “They’re not sophisticated structures. It’s just designed to be a big old hunk of metal that you run into.”

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