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Six Critical School Bus Safety Issues in 2022

When it comes to getting our kids to and from school, safety is by far the most important element. Parents, school administrators and bus drivers all want school transportation to be a secure space where kids are taken care of and feel comfortable. But the traditional yellow school bus system is outdated and no longer meets the modern safety standards we want for our families. In fact, very little has changed since these school bus safety standards were developed in 1939.

From the struggle to adapt to Covid-19 demands, to ongoing unresolved issues with bullying and harassment on buses, the student transportation system is failing all of us. For our kids’ safety, and for our own peace of mind, our school buses need to change. Modernizing this system will bring new efficiencies, improved safety through technology, cost savings, and ultimately allow our children to get the most out of their education.

The Facts Around School Bus Safety

The safety facts and statistics around school bus safety are, much like the school transportation industry as a whole, pretty antiquated and lacking clarity. Laws and state actions aren’t consistent and in some areas they don’t take into account new transportation research which recommends, for example, basic safety measures like seat belts. For many districts, the archaic idea of “buses are safer without seatbelts” still stands, for a variety of reasons including the cost to retrofit, resulting in older buses being at odds with modern research emphasizing the safety imperative.

Along with this debated and complex seatbelt question, some of the most critical safety concerns facing the student transportation industry in 2022 are those related to Covid-19, toxic diesel exhaust, bullying, antiquated bus hardware, and vehicle visibility. Ultimately, our kids are riding around in vehicles that simply aren’t equipped to fully protect them.

Delving into the six major school bus safety issues serves to first acknowledge our greater industry shortcomings and blind spots, to then make great improvements in the future.

COVID-19

When it comes to bus safety for our kids, Covid-19 is still at the forefront of all our minds. Crowding in school transportation is a big safety issue, and even when the pandemic has subsided, keeping kids healthy will always be a top priority.

The problem is, traditional busing doesn’t actually allow for any real type of flexibility or tracking to keep kids safe when outbreaks occur, or when schedules need to shift to create more social distancing for kids. This failure becomes even more detrimental in low-income areas where communities are more affected by Covid-19 and also rely more on busing and unnecessarily long commute times.

So yes, there’s room for serious improvement. First, bus routes need more dynamic technology-based routing. School districts and officials need to update routes quickly and take the lead on planning so drivers can quickly adapt to A/B schedules, staggered bell times, student absences, and real-time GPS routing.

Buses also need contact tracing. Schools are already monitoring their own cases, but that tracking needs to flow into the bus system as well, and provide the tools drivers need to notify administrators and parents/guardians about exposures.

Additionally, bus drivers need to be empowered to communicate with parents/guardians about their own commitments to health and safety, and parents/guardians need to be able to communicate any specific instructions regarding each students’ health needs to their drivers. Modern solutions such as mobile and tablet apps allow parents to easily communicate and provide specific instructions for their child’s driver.

Bullying & Harassment 

Traditional school buses have essentially been a breeding ground for bullying and harassment. One study, for example, found that 87% of the families questioned said their children had witnessed bullying on the bus. Many kids don’t even discuss these issues with parents until months after the issue occurs, and some never do at all.

Why does bullying and harassment happen so frequently on school buses? They are spaces almost completely unsupervised by adults, save for the far-off driver who is busy keeping their eyes on the road, and isn’t trained to de-escalate fights or deal with inappropriate behavior.

What if bus drivers were better trained in de-escalation tactics or could identify signs of abuse? Through improvements in technology and training, bus drivers may be able to report, monitor, and track safety incidents with greater efficiency and effectiveness. This forward thinking can lead to a school bus environment that could look a whole lot different.

Toxic Diesel Exhaust

Over 90% of the country’s 500,000 school buses run on diesel. American school buses travel about four billion miles annually, and those diesel buses are pumping out 8.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gas every single year. That’s a lot of toxic air making its way into the environment to get kids to and from school.

These numbers have real human consequences we can’t ignore. More than 25 million children and thousands of drivers breathe this toxic air every day. These impurities negatively impact kids’ health and academic performance, particularly for kiddos who are dealing with asthma and other respiratory conditions.

It’s no question that electric fleets are the answer. If public buses are already going electric, what’s keeping school buses behind? Transitioning to cleaner, greener buses can meaningfully shrink our society’s environmental footprint as well as save school districts money in the long run.

Safety Belts & Their Effectiveness

Some studies attempted to prove that seat belts are an unnecessary expense for school buses. But the truth is many of these studies were executed before safety belts were required in regular vehicles and, much like the bus transportation system as a whole, are now antiquated and dangerous.

The unfortunate reality is that as of today, states can still decide whether or not students are required to wear a seatbelt on the bus. Nevertheless, in 2015 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stated that their strong position is this: seat belts save lives, no matter if that’s in a passenger car or a yellow school bus.

Let’s put this into perspective. According to the National Safety Council, 6,000 passengers and drivers were injured in school-bus related accidents in 2019. Those are 6,000 risks most parents are not willing to take. Which is why all riders in school transportation should be buckled in, and school buses should be equipped to make that possible.

External/Internal Cameras & Hardware

Take a look at any school bus in your neighborhood and you’ll notice the design is probably the same as it was when you were in school. The folks at Bellwether Education Partners said it best: “Little has changed in student transportation since school buses came on the scene in 1939, when representatives from 48 states developed the first set of school bus standards. Nearly 80 years later, the iconic yellow school bus continues to dominate public school transportation.”

Traditional school buses are outdated, and that includes their safety hardware. Devices like stop arms (those stop signs that extend from the side of the bus when students are boarding or exiting the bus), as well as flashing lights, driver mirrors, and cameras, are technologies that work to keep kids extra safe on their journey to and from school. Yet many are sparse or outdated.

On-board cameras, for example, can provide an additional pair of eyes where necessary and appropriate, and ultimately help with bullying and behavioral issues amongst students. Unfortunately, school transportation operators report only having cameras on two-thirds of their buses.

Stop-arm cameras are another helpful piece of hardware for school transportation. They capture images of cars illegally passing buses, but again were only reported on 20% of fleets. And that wasn’t even on every vehicle.

There’s no question about it— to protect kids’ safety, buses need to be equipped with the right technology, and ensure it protects student privacy. Transportation providers must look toward positive change through technology, improvements and reevaluation of hardware if they want to be effective.

School Bus Color & Visibility

Since the school bus inception, bright yellow has been a symbol of education and reliability in the education system. You may even refer to that specific shade of yellow as “school bus yellow.”

But it’s time to question the antiquated idea. Is yellow really the safest color for a school transportation vehicle? Is it the most visible, in an era where we can dramatically customize colors and reflectivity? Does it prevent more accidents than other colors? Asking the questions— even the most detailed ones—and always being open to new ideas and new solutions is important to ensuring all of our student’s safety.

Conclusion: Are School Buses Safe in 2022?

A lot has changed in how we define safety over the past few years. We understand now more than ever the risks and complications our kiddos’ transportation poses. We also understand how crucial it is for every player to be able to adapt quickly and communicate, no matter the circumstances.

There’s much improvement to be made in our school buses and the way we send our kids off to school every day. As safety issues continue to evolve, Zum is getting ahead of these problems and finding solutions. If you or your school district wants a leg up on school bus safety that also offers serious efficiency and actual savings, reach out to Zum. There’s no better feeling than sending off your kids to school knowing they’re in good hands.