WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) kicked off its annual conference here for the first time on Monday with lively discussions about electric buses, seat belts, illegal bus passing, and onboard technology.
Representatives from school bus manufacturers Blue Bird, IC Bus, The Lion Electric Co., and Thomas Built Buses discussed the growing market demand for electric school buses, driven in part by the availability of Volkswagen (VW) settlement funds and interest from electric companies.
In addition to the benefits of near-zero emissions, lower total cost of ownership, and quieter operation, said Marc Riccio, alternative fuels manager for Blue Bird, school districts will also be able to sell power back to electric companies through vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology.
“Power companies have realized that school buses have value as huge electricity farms,” added Ken Hedgecock, the vice president of sales, marketing, and service for Thomas Built Buses.
Navistar, the parent company of IC Bus, has projected that half of all school bus sales could be electric by 2035, said Trish Reed, vice president and general manager of IC Bus. However, battery costs will decrease significantly and the technology will improve considerably by 2025, she added.
IC Bus and Thomas Built Buses added that they are also continuing to invest in diesel technology, as that propulsion method will still be more appropriate for buses running on some routes.
Reed also discussed how changing demographics, including more Generation Xers and Millennials moving into higher-level positions, is driving an increasing demand for more safety technology, such as collision mitigation, on school buses.
“We get asked more often than not why we don’t have this technology on all of our buses,” Reed said.
Also growing in acceptance is school buses equipped with lap-shoulder belts. Longtime supporters Max Christensen, an executive officer for school transportation at the Iowa Department of Education and a NASDPTS past president, and Chris Darling, executive director of the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association, walked attendees through their journey to getting the state to require lap-shoulder belts, also known as three-point belts, on all new school buses.
Christensen and Darling pointed to multiple turning points over the past 12 years. Those included when flexible seating was introduced in school buses in 2007; in 2013 when Christensen observed in a school bus crash demonstration that one of the unbelted dummies was about the size of his young daughter at the time and worked with NASDPTS to change its position to supporting seat belts on buses, regardless of whether there was funding for them; a list of pros and cons from members in a 2017 IPTA newsletter; and changing the messaging in the state on the benefits of seat belts in 2019 from preventing fatalities, since there hadn’t been any related to school buses in the state in many years to reducing injuries and better behavior, which could help with driver retention.
Then, in September, the Iowa State Board of Education adopted a rule to require lap-shoulder belts in all new school buses in the state.
“If someone tells you it can’t be done, it can,” Christensen said.
Soon after, the conversation turned to recent data on illegal bus passing incidents and fatalities. Keith Dreiling, the director of the Kansas Department of Education’s School Bus Safety Unit and NASDPTS central region director, highlighted some data from the department’s annual National School Bus Loading and Unloading Survey.
Findings include, Dreiling said, that there were eight fatalities over the last year: three in Indiana, and one each in Georgia, Mississippi, Maryland, Missouri, and Wyoming; and that children 9 years of age and younger are still in the majority of fatalities.
Additionally, the survey found that 87.5% of fatalities were attributed to other vehicles. Three-quarters, or six, of the fatalities occurred in October, and there was a close to even split as to what the lighting conditions were (three fatalities occurred both during dawn and in the dark, and two took place in daylight). Weather conditions were clear in seven of the eight fatalities and weather-related road conditions were dry when all fatalities occurred.