This is the fourth and final article in a series that covers the use of mobile data terminals. The first, second, and third articles appeared in the January 2018, February 2018, and March 2018 issues, respectively.
Mobile data terminals (MDTs) are still new technology, and the applications are still emerging — along with associated laws, rules, and regulations. Change presents challenges.
As an example, when talking with folks outside the industry, I sometimes hear that school bus stops are confusing because of the yellow lights: “To get people to stop, they need to see red — like we used to do it.” Well, the last time school buses were put in service in North Carolina with red lights only (no ambers) was well over three decades ago. Those buses are long gone, but change takes time for some people.
Further, when change involves an aspect of safety, those of us in the safety business tend to exercise caution. Sometimes extreme caution.
In this final installment in a series on the use of MDTs in school bus transportation, we summarize the issues and survey the current state of applicable regulation.
Recapping MDT Issues
When implementing MDT technology or developing related policies, the key issue is driver distraction. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2015 there were nearly 3,500 traffic deaths attributable to distracted driving.
This issue is real, and we can’t ignore it. Just as real, however, are the efficiency, safety, and security benefits of the applications available on MDTs.
The first article in this series (January 2018) addressed the quandary of potential benefits vs. potential distractions.
In segment 2 (February), we focused on applications that can help ensure that, very simply, we don’t lose track of students. MDT-based apps provide the driver with information about which students are authorized to get on and off at each bus stop.
In article 3 (March), the issues surrounding turn-by-turn directions were discussed. The benefits of many apps are magnified for the substitute driver.
Without belaboring the audio-active/video-active issue that we explored in some depth, I submit that audio-only directions may not keep the substitute driver from driving with the printed route sheet in one hand in the darkness of early morning.
To see how you would adapt, try driving in an unfamiliar area using your personal in-vehicle GPS with the display covered up or facing away from you. It might be manageable, or you might find that you need the map display to best process instructions for upcoming turns.
Despite the advantages of MDTs, though, I also recognize that a driver could become distracted while looking at the display for driving directions.
Federal Law and Guidance
Federal law clearly prohibits texting, and no one suggests that school bus drivers should be allowed to interact with an MDT while the bus is moving. Beyond that, however, the rules are not clear.
School transportation and government operations are exempt from most federal motor carrier safety regulations (FMCSRs), such as pre-trip inspections, log books, and medical exams (“DOT Medical Card”). This exception is outlined in 49 CFR 390.3(f).
However, FMCSRs related to mobile phone use and texting specifically include school bus drivers (see 383.3[b]).
These FMCSRs were enacted because of a demonstrated need to eliminate distracted driving among commercial drivers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) distracted driving web page highlights this issue and the need for the rules.
On the flip side, in regulation relevant to all commercial drivers, the following clarification distinguishes MDT fleet applications from “texting.” In the 390.5 definitions, the regulation says that texting does not include:
“Using a device capable of performing multiple functions (e.g., fleet management systems, dispatching devices, smart phones, citizens band radios, music players, etc.) for a purpose that is not otherwise prohibited in this subchapter.”
In fact, FMCSA acknowledges the benefits of navigation compared to paper maps in a CMV Driving Tips document:
“GPS units are much safer to use while driving as compared to maps, as long as you are not trying to enter information into the unit while driving. However, studies have shown that using these kinds of systems can still take your eyes off the road. Therefore, never try to enter information into a GPS unit while driving!”
State Specs and Policies
As school bus operators look to their states for guidance, states also need to consider the experiences at the local level when enacting laws or policy.
In a survey conducted last year by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, most responding state directors reported that there is no state law, policy, or regulation in place that specifically addresses the use of MDTs on school buses in their states. This may be a good thing, since the technology is still emerging — as is the experience of school bus operators.
Some states — including Washington, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, and Iowa — have proactively put something in place to provide initial guidance to school bus operations that want to implement MDT technology. There is every likelihood that these will evolve along with the technology and its applications.
Here are details on those five states’ current policies:
• Washington state addresses the key issues that we addressed in article 1. The MDT can’t block the driver’s vision and can’t cause a snagging hazard near the door. It is allowed to project video and audio turn-by-turn instructions. This allowance acknowledges the potential benefits, but leaves the flexibility to implement various configurations to the school district.
• Indiana school bus specifications address view screens associated with GPS systems specifically, which must not be active while the bus is in motion. Audio turn-by-turn directions are allowed, but they must not be connected to the AM/FM speakers.
• Kentucky allows tablet devices to be installed “as a part of routing, GPS and pre-trip systems” and must be removable. Similar to the Indiana requirements, the tablet must be able (but is not required) to go dark and silent when the vehicle is in motion. See schoolbusfleet.com/Apr18i.
• Iowa Department of Education guidance and Wisconsin administrative code mimic the definition of “driving” used by FMCSA in 49 CFR 383.51 (used with respect to CDL disqualification resulting from a conviction for texting). That definition of “driving” excludes when the vehicle is stationary on the side or off of the road, even with the motor running.
• Wisconsin also addresses the mounting and vision obscuration issues and specifies that, “Software programs, if utilized, shall be specific to school bus operations such as, but not limited to, passenger accountability, routing, navigation, emergency notification, tracking, messaging and equipment monitoring.” The code also specifies that the MDT may not cause a distraction.
There is still a long way to go with MDTs. Technology companies are in the relatively early stages of application development and deployment. School bus operators are still in the early stages of evaluating those apps, and regulators don’t have sufficient data and impact statements to establish a final, comprehensive regulatory framework.
But the pieces are coming together. We can see the potential in efficiency, safety, and security that MDT-based apps offer. Lessons are being learned, and initial policies and regulations are being put in place.
Yes, distraction is an issue — whether resulting from reading an MDT screen, trying to read a route sheet in the dark, or staring at an unruly passenger in the rearview mirror. Application rollout and driver training must go hand in hand to minimize distraction while maximizing operational efficiency and student security.
There are numerous opportunities emerging. I’m excited to see where they will lead us.