Receiving half the news, or not even that, is not helpful to anyone. Yet this is what the public receives whenever an important tragedy occurs. Such was the case when a full-size school bus was reportedly involved in a collision with a minivan on McNaught Line southwest of Listowel, Ontario on the morning of Tuesday, December 15, 2020. To some extent we should be grateful that the OPP posted a photo of the bus on its Twitter account (shown above). Unfortunately it provides very little information. We do not see the other vehicle that was involved in this collision. That vehicle is on the opposite side of the bus from where the photo was taken.
Official news media were able to post additional photos from the other side of the bus. Thus those who were able to visit those news websites were able to see the damage to the front end of the bus as well as the damage to the minivan. We are not able to show those photos as, in our society’s wisdom, such photos are copyrighted. The fact that we might be able to say something that might educate the public on this important matter appears to be irrelevant. So the police can hide the collision information and so can the official news media.
This secrecy is at a critical time when seat-belt use in school buses is being debated. For decades Transport Canada and its twin in the U.S. the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have believed it is safer for children to be in a compartmentalized zone of a seating space without the installation of seat-belts. Many have been questioning that reasoning since seat-belts, child seats and booster cushions have been required when riding in other vehicles. Seat-belts are now slowly being introduced in full-size school buses.
While many persons have strong opinions on the seat-belt-no-seat-belt debate, few actually have the knowledge and experience with injury causation to match their zealous viewpoint. Provision of the detailed results of significant school bus impacts could go a long way toward educating all those who wish to be informed. That collision of a couple of days ago near Listowel, Ontario is an example of a fairly significant impact and important information could be obtained about seat-belt effectiveness even though the bus was occupied only by its driver. Unfortunately even rudimentary information such as several photographs has not been made available.
Even without this basic information some observations can be made. For example, in the single photo shown above we see that the school bus has come to rest at an angle with its front end in the opposing lane. If we were able to show a couple of the photos taken by the official news media we would be able to show that the two vehicles came into initial contact with the right portions of their front ends. Such an overlap is not common in head-on impacts as the opposite is common: overlaps in head-on collisions involve the left portions of their front ends.
We can also observe that a full-size school bus is substantially more massive than a minivan. This means that, even if the school bus was travelling slowly, the bus would still push the minivan in its own direction of travel after the impact. So what we see in the final rest position of bus is the result of its motion after impact and not its location at the time of impact or before impact.
We can also observe in the above photo that the front wheels of the bus are steered very sharply to the left. This is not something that is induced by an impact force. It is caused by the turning of the steering wheel before impact.
Combining these facts its suggests that the two vehicles likely collided in the bus’s lane and that, just before impact, the bus driver likely steered very hard to the left. This suggests that the bus driver was attempting to avoid the minivan that was approaching on the wrong side of the road. Now, these thoughts are preliminary. Without the details that are typically available to a reconstructionist it becomes precarious to draw these conclusions. However, this assessment is not made for the purposes of informing a formal court, but to illustrate what information can be gained from examining photographs.
We combine the fact that the driver of the minivan died with the observation that there was substantial crush at its front end. We can also observe a substantial amount of crush at the front end of the bus and note that the bus driver sustained injuries. These facts give us some idea of the severity of the impact force. This impact force was not insignificant. For this reason it is important to ask the question: What would have happened if this bus was full of school children?
Let us look aside for a moment and consider some important facts about injury causation from some simple examples.
Many persons may be familiar with the sport of boxing. Here there is considerable importance to protecting the boxer’s head from the blow of an opposing boxer’s glove. Yet the same blow applied to another portion of the boxer’s body is not as important. Why is that? It must mean that the location of where the impact occurs on the body is important. Some portions of the human body can withstand an impact (boxer’s blow) better than others.
As another example, consider the effect of a warrior’s spear in some ancient battle. The narrow point of the spear can be very effective in causing injury. But imagine if the warrior stuck an opponent with a pool noodle or something broad like a sheet of plywood. The effect would not be as deadly. So what can we learn from that observation? The object or instrument that strikes us, or that we strike, is important and can change the resultant injury.
Combining the two observations we can say that the location on the body where we are struck and the instrument or object that strikes us is important in changing the injury result even when the force is equal. Now, how does this matter in a school bus collision such as the one shown the photo above?
We can consider the two options, one where all the hypothetical children are seat-belted and the alternative, where all the children are unbelted. In both cases the impact is the same and the impact force is of the same magnitude. What is it about a seat-belt that makes its safe in preventing or reducing the severity of injuries in collisions? Surely the impact force is the same as the scenario where no seat-belts are worn. We must understand that the difference is what was described above: What portion of the body is struck and what strikes the body makes the difference. Said another way, when the school bus comes to a dramatically lower speed as a result of the frontal impact, all the bodies of the children begin to move dramatically forward in relation to the vehicle interior. We say that the difference is that the children wearing seat-belts will make contact with seat-belt webbing that crosses over the lap and shoulder regions. Meanwhile the children without seat-belts will experience an impact to different parts of their bodies and against some portions of the bus interior such as the seat back in front of them.
And here lies the important difference. Different portions of the body sustain the impact force and the contact is against different objects, instruments or surfaces. We will not go beyond this basic observation only to say that the safety of a designed restraint such as a seat-belt depends on it being the correct restraint for the occupant and that it is correctly used. Those are very important points. The reason why we do not place a 5-year-old child in an adult seat-belt is because it is the incorrect restraint for that child. Secondly the reason why the correct restraint may not be safe is because it is used improperly. Even though there is much to be said beyond these basic observations we will not beyond them at this time. These points are only made to induce the public to consider what these observations could mean in a real-life school bus collision.