A school bus is a specially built, painted and equipped bus used to transport students to and from school. In Canada and the United States they are commonly painted an orangey-yellow color (officially known as "National School Bus Glossy Yellow") for purposes of visibility and safety and equipped with specialized traffic warning devices. Most used in recent years have been diesel-powered. Full-size school buses can seat forty-five to seventy passengers or even more, but in many districts smaller vehicles are used as well.
Some U.S. school districts purchase the buses and hire their own drivers, while others engage the service of school bus contractors such as Laidlaw to perform this function. School buses in the UK in almost all cases are contracted out to local bus companies. Elsewhere in Europe school buses are hardly known.
School buses in the U.S.
Early modes: 'kid hacks' become school buses
Wayne Works, predecessor of Wayne Corporation, was founded in the United States of America in 1837. By 1886, and possibly earlier, it is known that Wayne Works was making horse-drawn school carriages which many people referred to as "school hacks," "school cars," "school trucks," or "kid hacks." ("Hack" was a term for certain types of horse-drawn carriages.)
In 1914, Wayne Works dropped a wooden kid hack onto an automobile chassis, creating a predecessor to the modern motor school bus. In the bodies for school transportation the company produced through this era, passengers sat on perimeter seating, facing the center rather than the front of the bus. Entry and egress was through a door at the rear, a design begun in non-motorized days so as not to startle the horses. This was possibly a precursor to the modern rear emergency door commonly found on modern school buses.
In 1927, Blue Bird Body Company and Wayne Works began building all-steel bus bodies, followed by others by 1935. In the 1930s, the school bus bodies of Wayne Works began to include a group of heavy-duty "collision rails" or "guard rails" as an added safety feature.
Early school buses primarily served rural areas where it was deemed impractical for the young students to walk the distances necessary to get back and forth from school on their own, and were sometimes no more than a truck with perhaps a tarpaulin stretched over the truck bed.
Wayne Works was one of the earliest school bus companies to offer glass in place of the standard canvas curtains in the passenger area long before many "school" bus companies did in the early 1930s.
Experiments with transit-style school buses
In the 1930s, Wayne Works and other school bus body companies manufactured some transit-style school buses, that is, types with a more or less flat front-end design (known in modern times as "type D" school buses).
In 1950, Albert Luce , founder of the Blue Bird Body Company, developed a transit style design which evolved into the Blue Bird All-American, generally considered the first successful transit design for school buses in the US. However, the "conventional" design, with a truck type hood and front-end (known as type C on modern school buses) was to continue to dominate US school bus manufacturing through the end of the 20th century.
Dr. Frank W. Cyr: father of the yellow school bus
Most school buses turned the now familiar yellow in 1939. In April of that year, Dr. Frank W. Cyr, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York organized a conference that established national school-bus construction standards, including the standard color of yellow for the school bus. It became known officially as "National School Bus Chrome, later renamed National School Bus Glossy Yellow." The color, which has come to be requently called simply "school bus yellow", was selected because black lettering on that hue was easiest to see in the semi-darkness of early morning and late afternoon.
The conference met for seven days and the attendees created a total of 44 standards, including specifications regarding body length, ceiling height and aisle width. Dr. Cyr's conference, funded by a US$5,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, was also a landmark event inasmuch as it included transportation officials from each of the then 48 states, as well as specialists from school-bus manufacturing and paint companies. The conference approach to school bus safety, as well as the yellow color, has endured into the 21st century. Dr. Cyr became well-known as the "Father of the Yellow School Bus."
Growth in school bus use after World War II
Following World War II, there was a nationwide movement in the U.S. to consolidate public schools into fewer and larger ones. This meant that fewer students were attending school in their immediate neighborhood, particularly as they progressed into high school. This led in turn to a large increase in the demand for school buses.
Protecting school children loading and unloading
By the mid 1940s, most states had traffic laws requiring motorists to stop for school buses while children were loading or unloading. The justifications for this protocol was:
- children, especially the younger ones, do not have brains developed sufficiently to fully embrace the danger and consequences of crossing safety without adult supervision. Under U.S. tort laws, a child cannot legally be held accountable for negligence for this reason. For that same reason, adult crossing guards often are deployed in walking zones between homes and schools.
- it is impractical in many cases to avoid children crossing the traveled portions of roadways after leaving a school bus or to have an adult to accompany them.
- the size of a school bus generally limits visibility for both the children and motorists during loading and unloading
The standardized yellow color helped and warning lettering was painted in large letters on school buses, but many tragic accidents occurred when traffic was not aware that the hazard existed, and children on foot were hit by other vehicles. Several devices were under development to help school bus drivers warn other motorists.
Around 1946, one of the early (and possibly the first) systems of alternating traffic warning lights on school buses was used in Virginia. In those days before the advent of transistors and advanced plastic lens technology, an alternating system was created by using sealed beam headlight bulbs with the lenses colored red, and a mechanical motor and solenoids to alternate the high and low beam filaments in the single bulb fixtures mounted at the front and rear of the bus. School children and drivers were subjected to a loud tick-tock noise from the flasher motor as it was operating. Activation was through a mechanical switch attached to the door control.
Around this time, some states began specifying a mechanical stop arm which the driver could activate to swing out from the left side of the bus to warn traffic. The portion of the stop arm protruding in front of traffic had a sign bearing a warning message.
In later years, flashing lights were added to the stop arms, mechanical flasher devices were replaced by electronic ones, and the front and rear warning lights were increased from two to four and eventually eight (in most states). Plastic lenses were developed in the 1950s which offered greater visibility and significantly lower costs than the early systems which used colored headlight bulbs.
Even though jurisdictions in the United States and Canada have various school bus stop laws requiring traffic to stop for stopped school buses loading or unloading, passing stopped school buses illegally can still be commonly noticed. Even though many jurisdictions impose heavy penalties, convictions may be low and therefore make the usefulness of the school bus stop law questionable, as certain other countries not requiring traffic to stop may not have more dangers. Traffic laws in Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, the United Kingdom do mention school buses, but none of them require traffic to stop in the same way as in the United States and Canada. The speed limit is 40 km/h in Australia or 20 km/h in New Zealand when passing a stopped school bus.
Arguments against full stop for school buses loading and unloading
Major arguments used by those, whether inside or outside the United States and Canada, against full stop for school buses loading and unloading include:
- Excessively requiring traffic to stop decreases public trust like speed traps.
- Though unintentionally, some feel that animosity commuters feel toward school buses may actually transfer to their voting habits when bonds come up for more school funds.
- Children should be better educated to be more careful on the roads.
- Children should not get false sense of safety and protection due to requiring traffic to stop for their getting on or off school buses.
Arguments for full stop for school buses loading and unloading
Major arguments used by those, usually inside the United States and Canada, for full stop for school buses loading and unloading include:
- Children may dart out, so traffic must stop.
- Children expect traffic to stop.
- Reduces exposure of motorists to risk of liability for negligence in striking a child who cannot be held as negligent under civil law.
Most American and Canadian officials try to reduce passing stopped school buses illegally by increased enforcement and penalties, but its effectiveness is still questionable. In New York State, an official estimate is that 50000 vehicles pass stopped school buses illegally every day . However, as New York State requires traffic to stop for a school bus on a different roadway of a divided highway, unlike most other states in the United States, the estimate may include "New York violations" that may be perfectly legal in other states.
Ona national basis, school bus drivers in the United States have reported a decrease in passing violators in recent years with improved warning devices. Despite an increase in traffic and school bus ridership, annual fatalities and injuries to children struck by other vehicles has decreased as well.
There was also a concern for the protection of school children during major impacts. A weak point and location of structural failure in catastrophic school bus crashes was well-known to be joints, the points were panels and pieces were fastened together. Longitudinal steel guard rails had been in use since the 1930s to protect the sides of buses, but behind them on the sides and on the roofs, all manufacturers were combining many individual panels to construct a bus body.
Around 1967, Ward Body Company of Conway, Arkansas subjected one of their school bus bodies to multiple roll, and noted the separation at the joints, as well as pointing out that many of their competitors were using far fewer rivets. This resulted in new attention by all the body companies to the number and quality of fasteners.
Simply increasing the number of fasteners (rivets, screws, and huckbolts) was not enough to satisfy engineers at Wayne Corporation in Richmond, Indiana. In their tests, no matter how many fasteners were used, the joints were always the weak point under high stress loads. They also noted how the continuous guard rails used on the sides tended to spread the stress from a point of impact, allowing it to be shared and dissipated at portions of the body structure further away.
Instead of trying to figure out how to make the fasteners do a better job, they stood back and wondered if the design features of the guard rails could be expanded. The result was a revolutionary new design in school bus construction: Continuous longitudinal interior and exterior panels for the sides and roofs.
Branded the Lifeguard, the new school bus design used Wayne's huge roll-forming presses to make single steel pieces which extended the entire length of the bus body. The concept was that by reducing the number of joints, the number of places where the body could be anticipated to separate in a catastrophic impact was reduced in a like amount.
The "Lifeguard" design reduced overall body weight, the number of fasteners used, and man-hours required for assembly. However, it required the very large roll-form presses and special equipment to handle the panels. A more practical problem was the panels had to be cut to exact length for each bus body order, which varied with seating capacities and from state-to-state. This created a marketing disadvantage as the Wayne factory required greater manufacturing lead time than when parts were more interchangeable between orders under older panel technology.
In the years after Wayne introduced the Lifeguard in the 1973 model year, competing body manufacturers began moving towards using fewer side panels and joints, although none went as far as Wayne in the 1970s.
Federal standards for school buses
The focus on structural integrity resulted in the joint requirements of the U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for school buses, most of which which became applicable for school buses on April 1, 1977. The following, including Standard 221 (joint strength) are generally considered to be the most important, even 25 years later.
Standard No. 217 - Bus Emergency Exits and Window Retention and Release (Effective 1973-9-1) This standard establishes minimum requirements for bus window retention and release to reduce the likelihood of passenger ejection in crashes; and for emergency exits to facilitate passenger exit in emergencies. It also requires that each school bus have an interlock system which will prevent the engine from starting if an emergency door is unlocked and an audible warning system which will sound an alarm if an emergency door release mechanism is not closed while the engine is running.
Standard No. 220 - School Bus Rollover Protection (Effective 1977-4-1) This standard establishes performance requirements for school bus rollover protection. The purpose of this standard is to reduce the number of deaths and the severity of injuries that result from failure of the school bus body structure to withstand forces encountered in rollover crashes.
Standard No. 221 - School Bus Body Joint Strength (Effective 1977-4-1) This standard establishes requirements for the strength of the body panel joints in school bus bodies. The purpose of this standard is to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from the structural collapse of school bus bodies during crashes.
Standard No. 222 - School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection' (Effective 1977-4-1) This standard establishes occupant protection requirements for school bus passenger seating and restraining barriers. The purpose of this standard is to reduce the number of deaths and the severity of injuries that result from the impact of school bus occupants against structures within the vehicle during crashes and sudden driving maneuvers.
Standard No. 301 - Fuel System Integrity - School Buses (Effective 1977-4-1) This standard specifies requirements for the integrity of motor vehicle fuel systems. Its purpose is to reduce deaths and injuries occurring from fires that may result from fuel spillage during and after motor vehicle crashes.
Continuing efforts to make school bus transportation safer
The new Federal Standards for school buses represented a quantum leap in school bus safety. Other efforts and innovations were to continue.
More sophisticated and comprehensive mirror systems were developed to help drivers see children who were off the bus at almost all times.
Crossing gates were developed to help children avoid walking in the area immediately in front of the bus.
Reflective striping, LED and strobe lights were added in the 1980s and 1990s.
Modern school buses are often well equipped with amenities lacking only a few years ago such as air conditioning, two-way radios, and wheelchair lifts (typically those with lifts are shorter than their counterparts and are sometimes exclusively assigned to carry disabled children).
Seat belts in school buses
Very few school buses have seat belts, a standard safety feature in cars and light duty passenger vehicles. In 1977, as provided in Standard 222, the federal government required passive restraint and structural integrity standards for school buses in lieu of requiring lap seat belts. In the 1980s, some districts in the US tried installing lap belts and then later removed them, claiming operational and passenger behavior problems. Whether lap belts should be required remains very controversial, although they are now required in at least 3 states (New York, New Jersey, and Florida). Regardless of the law, students (except a few very young ones) generally do not wear these belts.
Testing was underway in 2004 by manufacturers to develop special seating and restraint systems which would include the upper body. Such a system would provide better functional benefits than that afforded by lap seat belts.
Extending school bus safety standards to church bus operations
Church bus and school bus safety have always been closely related issues in the United States. However, they were linked more closely in the aftermath of a tragedy in 1988.
A Bus Accident at Carrollton, Kentucky in 1988 involving a church bus which had been originally built and served as a school bus was one of the worst bus accidents in United States history. 27 people including the bus driver were killed and 34 other bus passengers sustained minor to critical injuries. Only 6 bus passengers were not injured. The many additional victims include hundreds of families. At a practical level, it is fair to say that a tired, volunteer driver operating a flawed, over-crowded church bus had to face a drunk driver coming up the Interstate the wrong way. The site is still marked by a prominent sign.
It was quickly realized that many factors came together in tragedy that terrible night. While the immediate cause was the drunk driver of the other vehicle, it was additionally realized that most of the deaths on the bus occurred because the occupants could not evacuate promptly after the impact.
Many things needed action to help prevent or at least reduce the possibility of such a tragedy happening again. It was particularly painful to some participants during the aftermath to realize that a contributing factor to the accident itself and the severity were loopholes between the laws and procedures for a school bus and those involving the same vehicle after it became a church bus.
The accident resulted in a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation and report, as well as extensive media coverage and considerable litigation. Subsequently, many federal, state, and local agencies and bus manufacturers changed regulations, vehicle features, and operating practices. One of the key factors in making the event as tragic as it became was the fact that the bus was of an obsolete design which had been abandoned in school bus construction years earlier in which the fuel tank was actually mounted in the front of the bus, which made the spillage of large quantities of fuel almost inevitable in the event of a head-on collision. This bus was also fuel by gasoline rather than the more typical modern choice of diesel fuel. While this sort of bus has long been phased out of school bus usage, many similar buses are still in use as church buses, which are far less regulated, even today.
Many of the hundreds of various professional individuals who were involved in aspects of this accident and the aftermath hope that their efforts will contribute to making sure that such a combination of human and vehicle flaws will never result in another tragedy of this magnitude. Yet even over 15 years later, some also feel that it is important to revisit the issues, especially some aspects which could still occur again.
See the article on Church bus and school bus safety for more information on this topic and suggestions and tips to help those persons responsible for church buses.
School busing for racial purposes
During the era of segregation in the United States, school buses were often used to transport Black students to all-black schools, which were often further away from their homes than other public schools designated for white students. Sometimes, these were in only one or two locations within a entire county or other school district.
After the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that school and other segregation was an unconstitutional violation of rights granted to all citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment, some districts either voluntarily or by court order introduced new pupil assignment plans to promote racial desegregation. School districts in such situations were spread across virtually the entire United States, including those of many cities such as Los Angeles, California, Boston, Massachusetts, Wichita, Kansas, Cleveland, Ohio, and Norfolk, Virginia.
The desegregation plans usually resulted in more pupils of all races assigned to schools further from their homes than before. School buses (and city transit buses in some instances) were often used to transport the students reassigned to different schools beyond a reasonable walking distance. Opponents of this concept began to decry the practice as "forced busing".
In cities such as Richmond, Virginia, when a massive program began in 1971, parents of all races complained about the long rides, hardships with transportation for extra-curricular activities, and the separation of siblings when elementary schools at opposite sides of the city were "paired," (i.e. splitting lower and upper elementary grades into separate schools).
In an effort to satisfy parents concerned about mandated long bus rides, many districts such as Richmond later modified their pupil placement plans to provide attractive programs in "magnet schools", and built new school buildings and reconfigured older buildings to develop logistically more favorable attendance plans which met desegregation goals. Combined with changes in housing patterns, the forced busing programs were gradually eliminated as the courts nationwide released districts from orders under old lawsuits.
Today, school buses are still used in most of these districts, but this is much more due to reduced walking zones, concern for pupil safety, and a wider choice of programs and locations for many students.
In the United States, according to statistics from 2003, there are over 450,000 school buses providing transportation nationwide 5 days a week for 23.5 million elementary & secondary school children -- twice daily. That's about 47 million trips -- before adding 5 million more for day activities & weekend trips. That means approximately 54% of all K-12 students in the country ride yellow school buses. Source: 
Retired school buses
When a school bus is retired from school transportation in the United States, most states have requirements that school bus lettering must be covered or removed and warning devices deactivated or removed. At least one state prohibits non-school buses from being more than 50% yellow, reserving the color on buses for school buses only. Regulations vary from state to state.
The large quantity of school buses retired from daily service has helped develop a wide range of uses for them.
- Many retired school buses are later sold to churches and used to transport elderly and mobility impaired worshipers to and from church services or to transport youth groups for outings to amusement parks, picnics, and visiting other churches.
- Some used school buses are shipped to Latin America and occasionally Africa for use as municipal transportation, transportation of migrant farmworkers, or even rededicated to pupil transport.
- Retired school buses have also been converted to motor homes and recreational vehicles. Enthusiasts of this type of vehicle conversion are sometimes called "schoolies."
- Some former school buses have been converted to mobile stores, workshops, or are used for general hauling as a form of medium duty truck when short distances and/or moderate speeds constitute the operating environment.
- On occasion, retired school buses are used for auto racing, often re-painted with garish designs, as a comic attraction at county fairs in the USA. They are also popular in some forms of demolition derby, often demolished at the same fair after having raced.
- Inoperable buses or bus bodies have often become storage units.
NTSB REPORT: Pickup Truck/Church Activity Bus Head-on Collision and Fire Near Carrollton, Kentucky May 14, 1988 a must-read for anyone with school or church bus responsibilities
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for school buses
U.S, Bureau of Transportation Statistics
School Bus explorer website with numerous pictures of various school bus from different manufacturers and eras.
Cyberkotic's site - History of the Wayne Works
Yahoo group for Wayne Bus Enthusiasts
Wayne County Historical Museum - main page
The old Wayne Works circa 1921
A horse-drawn kid hack at the Wayne County Historical Museum
Frank Cyr, Father of the Yellow School Bus
STN 100 Years of the School Bus
Laidlaw International official site
Laidlaw Education Services official website
Durham Transportation official website
First Student Inc. official website (successor to Ryder School Transportation Services, Inc.)
Blue Bird Corporation official website
IC Corporation official website, maker of International School Buses (successor to International Harvester, Navistar, International, Ward Body Company, and AmTran)
Thomas Built Buses official website (successor to Perley A. Thomas Car Works)
School Bus Fleet magazine official website
School Bus races at a Denver race track.
School buses in demolition derby
School Bus Stop Laws in the United States, Canada and Other Countries (very long web page)
- http://www.firstgroup.com/yellowschoolbus/index.html (yellow school buses in the U.K.)
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04