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Who's driving your child's school bus?

How parents can make sure children are safe while riding school bus

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Many parents are wondering who is driving their child's school bus and whether their child is safe on board after six elementary school students were killed and dozens were injured in a bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last month. 

But there are things parents can do to make sure their children are safe riding the school bus five days a week.

Every day across the country, nearly 500,000 buses travel a combined 260 million miles, carrying more than 25 million students to and from school and activities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from 2003 to 2012, 174 school-age children died crashes related to school transportation. Fifty-five of them were occupants of school transportation vehicles and 119 were pedestrians.

As difficult as it is to hear about children being killed or hurt when riding a school bus, many experts remind parents that it's still the safest way for a child to get to and from school. 

"School buses are large. They're heavy. They're supposed to drive a prescribed route. They're colored yellow. All over the country, there are all these big yellow school buses. They have lights, and this all helps to promote those safety features on the outside as well as the compartmentalization on the inside," said Danielle Kessenger, a child safety technician instructor with Safe Kids Northeast Florida.

VIDEO: Experts offer school bus safety tips

Students are about 50 times more likely to arrive at school alive if they take the bus than if they drive themselves or ride with friends, according to NHTSA. 

"Most kids aren't going to get hurt, and the seats are padded, so most kids are not going to get hurt in a low-impact school bus wreck. It's the massive ones where seatbelts are necessary that really make a difference and really save lives," said attorney John Phillips. 

Florida law requires all school buses purchased new after Dec. 31, 2000, to be equipped with safety belts. But Phillips said there's not much regulation. 

"If an officer drives by you as a driver and sees you're not wearing a seat belt, it's a citation now in Florida," Phillips said. "You're not going to cite a fourth-grader for not wearing a seat belt."

Kessenger also points out that, unfortunately, school bus seat belts are two-point, not three-point. 

"If we use a regular seat belt, put that in there. Then when there's a crash, the seat belt is going to lock and the child is only going to go so far, just like in a car," Kessenger said. 

The National Transportation Safety Board each year has their "most wanted" list, which is a list of areas in which it wants to make changes to reduce transportation accidents and save lives. One of them this year is to strengthen occupant protection, which has to do with making sure seat belts are being used, especially by children.

"In a crash, they get moved forward. You get that constellation of injuries that's attributed to the seat belt syndrome and I can even go as far as final separation and you can lose vital organs," Kessenger said.

That's why parents need to make sure their child's school and bus driver are enforcing that students are actually buckling up, as well as push the NHTSA to require school buses to have three-point seatbelts. 

"Parents can become involved in local politics. Contact your local representatives. Get it to Tallahassee. Use your PTA. That's what it's there for. They're actually a lobbying organization so get out there and get it done. People on the grassroots effort can get a lot more done," Kessenger said. 

Since 2003, there have bee 348,253 fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes and of those, 1,222 -- 0.35 percent -- were classified as school transportation-related, NHTSA statistics show.

Even though statistics show it is rare for a child to be injured or killed in a school bus accident, experts suggest parents find out who is driving their child's bus, learn the driver's name and get to know him or her. Parents can also look up driving records and other information on the county's clerk of courts website.

"If you've got a Duval County school kid, it would be easy enough to look his name up under the Duval County CORE records, search and see if they have speeding tickets, if they have a history. Things like that certainly will help," Phillips said. 

To find background information for a bus driver, visit Duval County Clerk of Courts Online Resource ePortal, or CORE. Concerns can also be reported to the school district. 

School districts hire bus drivers differently. Duval County contracts four transportation companies and those companies hire the drivers. But in St. Johns County, in which the buses are owned by the district, school officials are responsible for hiring, and the interview process for potential employees involves fingerprinting, drug and alcohol screening, a check of driving records and extensive training. 

Baker County is similar to St. Johns. The district owns the buses and drivers are hired by the school district, which does background checks and drug tests, provides state mandated training, and checks DMV records. The district then receives updates if their are changes to a driver's license or if an employee is arrested.

The maximum capacity of a standard school bus is 72 passengers. St. Johns County has 236 buses out each day, whereas Duval County has 869. 

Many school districts, including Duval County, also have a transportation website that parents can acess to find information on routes, bus companies and more. Click here to visit the Duval County Public Schools' Transportation webpage.