Because humans are imperfect, they rarely achieve perfection. But they keep striving for it. Even in school bus design.
As you’ll see in Editor Steve Hirano's ergonomics article, school bus manufacturers are striving to design the perfect compartment for the nation’s 450,000 school bus drivers. As you know, drivers come in all shapes and sizes, making it nearly impossible for manufacturers to design a compartment that meets every need.
But they’re getting closer. Each of three major bus manufacturers — Blue Bird, IC Corp. and Thomas Built Buses — has invested significant time and money into improving the ergonomics of the driver’s area.
It’s a critical task. The driver not only has to be comfortable but alert. In other words, too comfortable is not a good thing. Obviously, you don’t want the design of the compartment to make the driver groggy or, worse, lull him or her into full-blown sleep.
But you certainly don’t want the opposite — a state of discomfort and aggravation. Like the 24 million passengers of their buses, drivers are a precious commodity. The industry cannot afford to lose good ones merely because their vehicles place undue stress on their bodies. It’s hard enough to shoulder the responsibility of transporting other people’s children without having to put up with a bus that’s tiring to operate.
Miles ahead of yesteryear
Although innovation in design is still moving forward, the industry has come a long way in regard to ergonomics. It wasn’t that long ago that school buses were routinely built with standard transmissions, forcing drivers to use the clutch and stick shift. Although some of the old-timers still prefer this more-demanding driving style, the newer generation can be thankful that school buses these days are equipped with automatic transmissions.
There’s also the issue of doors. Manual controls are being phased out. In their place are automatic door controls that reduce the strain on drivers' hands, wrists and shoulders. This is a critical enhancement to the driver’s area. Too many drivers suffer repetitive-motion disorder because of the constant strain of opening and closing the door using a manual control. One of the new designs features a button on the steering wheel that actuates the door. Now drivers don’t even need to take their hands off the steering wheel to load and unload children.
Best use of 20/20 vision
While we're talking about the deficiencies of older equipment, we should probably mention visibility. Today’s conventional buses have sloped hoods and larger windshields that improve the visibility for the driver.
Being able to see more of the road — and an enlarged area in the danger zone — reduces the driver’s psychological stress. A driver who has limited visibility is extremely vulnerable. Let’s face it, driver’s need to have eyes in the back of their heads to manage their passengers; limiting their other fields of vision makes a tough job nearly impossible.
I think we need to make the driver’s job as simple as possible, minimizing the distractions and discomforts that come with operating a school bus full of children. The industry’s bus manufacturers are helping in that regard. But everyone in the industry needs to support these unsung heroes, whether it’s with improved equipment, training or wages and benefits — and an occasional word of praise.