Coming soon to a street near you

For the past two weeks there has been a yellow school bus parked on a vacant lot at the entrance to my subdivision, a reminder that very soon the early-morning traffic on that road will have another element: several of the estimated 440,000 yellow school buses that transport more than 24 million children to and from school and school-related activities every school day. The equivalent of the combined populations of the states of Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon ride on a school bus twice a day.

Even children who do not use the bus to get to and from school will most likely ride a school bus at least once during the coming year. Children enter a school bus for a supervised trip 8.8 billion times annually1, whether it be a five-mile shuttle back to their neighborhood, a field trip across town, a trip halfway across the country to participate in a band festival, or a football team being transported to its “away” game.

The safety statistics are impressive. In the 2002-03 school year, 45 states had no fatalities for school bus riders. An average of only six children per year died as a result of school bus accidents during the decade of 1990 to 2000. Today that figure is higher, due to increased passenger miles. Yet the most recent statistics put the average of school bus deaths per 100,000 miles at 0.01 compared to 0.94 for passenger cars.

The yellow school bus is a familiar vehicle in the United States and Canada, and is beginning to be known in the United Kingdom as well. Not all yellow school buses are all yellow. While the front and back ends of all buses are uniformly yellow, the top and sides often are at least partially painted in a contrasting color : white or silver tops, silver lower sides, or black-striped lower sides.

The yellow school bus as we know it today dates back to the 1930’s when the Carpenter Body Works of Indiana pioneered in producing buses with all-steel bodies. The most widely-used body today is manufactured by International, who also produced the very first factory-built bus in 1907. Other major body manufacturers are Thomas Built, Wayne, Collins, and Blue Bird. The chassis and the engine of most buses are produced by Chevrolet, General Motors or Ford.

School buses come in a variety of sizes, ranging from the Bantam series of under 17- to up to 30-passenger buses, which are a specialty of Collins Bus Company, to the giant 84-passenger TC/2000 model produced by the Blue Bird Corporation. All have certain standard features: handicap access , overhead red flashing signal lights, compartmentalization between seats in the event of a crash or fast stop, and anti-crush design in the event of a roll over.

One design feature which varies and is highly controversial is the front end construction. The area around a stopped school bus is often referred to as the “death zone”; most fatalities occur when a child dashes out from behind or in front of a stopped bus. The flat front design used by certain body manufacturers allows a wider field of vision for the driver so that even the smallest of children can be seen near the front of the bus.

Other safety issues which concern parents and school districts are the use of seat belts and the emission standards for diesel vehicles. Basic school bus design has not changed since 1977, and the National Coalition for School Bus Safety is still fighting the seat belt battle. While newly-purchased buses tend to be gasoline rather than diesel fueled, 90% of the bus fleets are diesel and a large percentage of these have not been upgraded. Large diesel vehicles have had Federal emission regulations in effect for less than ten years. Most school buses are older than that.

It costs about $8,000 to retrofit a school bus. Many of the early buses were maintained and in use as long as 50 years. Today a large number of school districts must retire their buses when they are 15 or 20 years old. Despite this, there are still thousands of school buses in use which were built before 1977 when the first highway safety regulations went into effect. The National Resources Defense Council, in a study of California school buses, discovered that the air inside running buses carries up to four times the amount of soot as was found around the exterior of the buses. Another serious area of exposure is from idling bus engines in the loading zones near schools.

Other areas of concern are driver training (most school drivers have never driven anything larger than a passenger car before climbing behind the wheel of a school bus), discipline policies covering a multitude of problems ranging from rowdiness to sex between teenagers riding the bus, and drug peddling. In many areas advertising is beginning to appear inside school buses just as it does in public transportation buses.

And, finally, there is always the odd news story concerning a yellow school bus: One originating in Florida was related to a school bus driver who was suspended for allowing his passengers to take an alligator along for the ride.

1Where do school buses go during the long summer vacation? One answer is: to a convention. Most large fleets are privately owned and leased to the school district using them. These yellow school buses may very well show up several states away, ferrying convention-goers between their hotels and the convention center.

www :collinsbus :com

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