James Blue is general manager of School Bus Fleet.

James Blue is general manager of School Bus Fleet.

The school bus is the safest way for children to get to school. But can it be safer?

That’s an essential question for anyone with a stake in pupil transportation. It was also the crux of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s July meeting on school bus occupant protection, which focused on seat belts. (After this story ran in our November issue, NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind stated that NHTSA’s position on the subject is that “every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt.")

Rosekind has made it clear that he considers seat belts a safety enhancement for school bus passengers. In an interview for the Today show in September, he said this: “Would safety belts make them safer? Absolutely.”

But Rosekind also gave that statement some important context: “Right now, putting them on that big, yellow school bus is still the safest way to get to school.”

At this point, school districts in every state but California still have the authority to decide whether to furnish their large school buses with three-point belts.

As Tom McMahon points out in his in-depth article, there are multiple factors to consider when making that decision. One is the cost of the three-point-belted seats, which adds around $7,000 to $10,000 to the price of a full-size school bus. But, as you’ll read, some districts have found that to be a sound investment.

Three-point seat belts aren’t the only safety add-on available to school bus buyers. Technologies that offer the potential to prevent or mitigate crashes are making their way into the market.

One example is electronic stability control (ESC), which works to prevent rollovers and loss of control. The technology monitors vehicle dynamics and, if needed, can engage the brakes to help the driver stay on his or her intended path.

This summer, NHTSA finalized a rule that requires ESC on heavy trucks and some large buses, such as motorcoaches, but school buses are exempt from the mandate. However, ESC is now available as an option on Blue Bird and Thomas Built school buses.

Another type of safety technology uses sensors to alert the driver if pedestrians are dangerously close to the bus. In New York City, the MTA has two transit buses testing the Mobileye Shield+ Pedestrian Detection Technology, developed by Mobileye and Rosco Vision Systems. I got to see the system this fall at BusCon, where it won the Best New Product or Service Award. (Another update: At the NAPT trade show last week, Thomas Built Buses announced that its new BusWise platform includes a Mobileye collision avoidance system as an option.)

As we consider new ways to make the yellow bus even safer, developments like ESC and collision avoidance systems offer great promise. But in an industry that is still recovering from years of funding shortfalls, cost remains a significant hurdle.

When funding is available for these types of investments, they can be targeted for specific operating environments. For example, pedestrian detection technology could be ideal for a school bus on an urban route. ESC is particularly beneficial for a bus traveling at higher speeds.

As our industry associations have recently pointed out, decisions like these are best left up to local operators, who can determine which safety technologies are the best fit for their operating conditions — and their budget.