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August 01, 1999  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

New Focus on Safety in the Next Millennium?

How the school bus industry should look at 'man and machine' for incremental safety improvements.

by Steve Hirano, Editor


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Target road rage
In addition to behavior management problems aboard the bus, there are similar issues outside the bus. Specifically, bus drivers need to be trained to deal with road rage, which seems to be on the rise nationwide. The yellow school bus seems to be a favorite target of angry motorists because it’s big and slow and often holds up traffic during loading and unloading of students. Finally, getting parents involved in the transportation process will be a significant challenge in the next century. Drivers should be encouraged to make regular contact with parents. Many school districts are encouraging drivers to call parents when there’s a behavior problem. Training in phone contact can be helpful in teaching drivers the proper technique. Parent surveys will be used more extensively in the next few years. The data and comments collected in these surveys certainly can help to improve the safety of an operation. For example, these surveys could allow parents to identify buses that are traveling too fast through neighborhood streets or arrive early at the bus stop (a dangerous practice). Currently, parent surveys can be costly to distribute, and analyzing the results can be time-consuming, but improvements in technology should help to solve that problem. Instead of mailing questionnaires to parents, transportation directors will soon be able to post them on the Internet. This will not only boost the response rate, but it will allow for computerized tallying of the results. Student training cannot be ignored when it comes to safety. Many school districts require classroom instruction on the rules of riding the school bus. Some districts use “Buster the Bus,” a motorized toy bus that can “talk,” to teach young children about school bus safety. Other programs use puppet shows to entertain and educate children. The industry should continue to challenge itself to find innovative ways to teach children about the dangers in and around the school bus, especially in light of the fact that the number of deaths in the loading/unloading zone typically outstrips deaths on the bus. The final human factor involves the motorists who share the road with school buses. They play a significant but often overlooked role in school bus safety. Illegal pass-bys of stopped school buses seem to be on the rise. More needs to be done to educate the public about the dangers of these traffic violations. Transportation managers need to exploit the media. Local newspapers and radio and television stations can help to deliver the message about this dangerous and illegal practice. A good time to alert the media is in the fall, but it’s not a bad idea to seek coverage during the middle of the school year as well. Many school districts and contractors have websites that can also be used to spread the word about illegal-bys. Posting a special notice about red-light violations will help to educate parents about their responsibilities as motorists.

What machines can do
Although people have the greatest impact, positive or negative, on school bus safety, equipment is also a critical factor. School buses, especially the large ones, are inherently safe because of their weight and profile. Except for large trucks, buses outweigh almost every vehicle on the road. Rarely will a school bus be the loser in a traffic collision. However, collisions between school buses and large trucks seem to have increased in the past few years. In some cases, the bus has come out second best, with passengers suffering severe injuries or death. These accidents prompted the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to study the crashworthiness of school buses. Its report, which may suggest that school buses be equipped with some form of active restraint, was due out in August and was not available at press time. To address the issue of passenger safety on school buses, NHTSA is halfway through a two-year research plan to devise the “next generation” of crash protection. This is the first time since 1977, when compartmentalized seating was implemented on all new buses, that NHTSA has seriously considered improving upon compartmentalization. It’s too soon to speculate on the outcome of NHTSA’s project. Upgrades to crash protection could include simple modifications to compartmentalization, such as padded sidewalls and ceilings, or complicated innovations such as three-point restraints requiring redesigned seats. We’ll have to wait and see. Automatic vehicle location technology, using global positioning satellites or land-based tracking systems, could make an impression on the industry in the next century. It will allow supervisors to track their buses in real time, a definite operational boost and also a safety consideration.

Putting sensors to work
Automatic braking systems could help to prevent children from being run over by the bus. The braking sensors can be placed along the bumpers and in front of the wheels. The Checkmate system marketed by Specialty Mfg. in Pineville, N.C., also allows for sensors to be placed in the service door, which can automatically stop the bus if a student’s clothing or book bag gets snagged. To reduce the incidence of motorists passing stopped school buses, video cameras or stop-action cameras increasingly will be used to record stop-arm violations. In North Carolina, a Silent Witness video system was installed on buses in Onslow County to document the activities of passing motorists. Although the cameras could not capture license plate numbers, the footage they provided helped convince local police that a problem existed. “It helped make the case with law enforcement, who were skeptical because some drivers had previously reported false violations,” says Derek Graham, North Carolina’s pupil transportation director in the Department of Public Instruction. Other safety innovations are coming down the line. Interlock devices will prevent students from being able to release the parking brake. LED lighting systems are making an impact in stop arms and could become more prevalent in brake lights and even warning lights. Remote-control mirror systems help drivers make the proper adjustments without leaving their seats. All of these devices and systems add to the overall safety of the school bus. But we need to remember that ultimately it’s the driver who’s responsible for the safety of the passengers. Proper training — and retraining — is critical. Drivers need to be constantly monitored for ASK (attitude, skills and knowledge). A deficit in any of these areas can lead to tragedy. With its sterling record in safety, this school bus industry can’t let down its guard, not for the few months remaining in this century and not anytime in the next millennium.

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