How many is too many students on a school bus?

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Bus manufacturers determine the seating capacity of each bus, and this rating is usually shown on the manufacturer’s vehicle identification plate. Most South Carolina school buses have a rated seating capacity of 60 to 78 students. Buses that are designed to transport students with disabilities transport fewer students because these buses must make room for wheelchair lift systems and at least two wheelchair securement systems on each bus. Bus manufacturers calculate seating capacity by assigning 13 inches of seat width per student. Thirteen inches is the typical space needed for kindergarten through third-grade students, obviously older students take up more room. The SDE provides a guide to school districts that recommends the rated seating capacity be reduced by 20% for middle school students and 33% for high school students. For example, a school bus rated to transport 78 first-graders would be able to transport 51 high school students. But the true test of a school bus’s capacity is whether a bus can safely transport the students assigned to ride. Safety is measured by the fact that every student must be fully seated on the seat cushion, not protruding into the aisle.

There are exceptions to this, however. State law permits school districts to transport students in standing room during the first 20 days of a school bus route. These 20 days usually occur at the beginning of the school year or immediately after the opening of a new school. The SDE reluctantly agrees with this law because school districts have no way to know how many students will be waiting at the bus stop for a ride on the first few days of a route until the bus actually runs the route. Therefore, there are locations that, on a given day, may have more students boarding the bus than there are seats. When this happens, the school district is required to make adjustments in school bus routing so that every student has a safe seat. If “standing students” were never allowed, a school bus driver would be required to leave students standing on the side of the road once the bus reached capacity. This would be a far more dangerous situation for the child. Consider the example of a five-year-old student waiting for the bus, but when the bus arrives, it’s full. The driver tells the child to wait on the side of the road for the next bus, which will be by in 20 minutes. Remember, the child may be standing in a remote location at 6 a.m. It is still dark, and the child’s parents may have already left for work. Fatalities and injuries are rare inside a school bus, their greatest risk are walking to and from the bus stop and waiting at the stop.

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