Sometimes, in the same way that the wheels on the bus go round and round, things come full circle. For Sam Massa, that’s certainly the case. As a child, Massa was a school bus enthusiast. Now, he’s working to make them safer.
The Origin of The Bus Boy
In 1999, Massa was featured in a Thomas Built Buses advertorial in the June/July edition of School Bus Fleet magazine. Massa, who was a third-grade student at the time, had a deep love of the big yellow bus. It started when he began taking the bus to and from school in kindergarten. The school had just made the switch from a bus with a pneumatic door to an electric door, a mechanism which mesmerized Massa.
“I thought it was almost magical, the way the door opened. The metal piece was only connected to one door, and both doors opened. I just couldn’t understand how that was possible,” he says.
Massa grew to love school buses.
“I liked the big bus. I thought it was kind of like a symbol of growing up.”
As time went on, Massa regularly visited Thomas Built’s website to learn about the company’s different bus models, and even communicated with employees.
Massa’s mom said the company even implemented some of the suggestions her son recommended regarding their website and its product lineup.
Massa’s love of school buses ran so deep that his bedroom door was even replaced by a set of retired Thomas Built bus doors. After hearing his story during a tour at the company’s factory, Thomas Built invited Massa to the 1999 National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) Conference & Trade Show in Denver, exposing him to all of the technology that’s part of the pupil transportation industry. That experience sparked a lifelong passion for manufacturing, business, engineering, and of course school buses.
Now, Massa owns his own company, HiViz Lighting, INC, which produces LED scene lighting for emergency vehicles. His company is particularly well known in the fire truck industry, providing around 30% of white lights on new fire trucks, Massa estimates. He has also worked as a firefighter, so he knows his way around a fire truck.
Making the Loading Process Safer
When an opportunity arose to participate in research on technology for school bus loading and unloading, Massa knew he wanted to take the chance to revisit his love of buses.
In 2021, Massa’s company was contracted by the U.S. Department of Transportation to research and develop technology capable of securing safe passage for children when crossing a roadway to board a school bus. His team is working alongside HAAS Alert.
HAAS Alert’s Safety Cloud cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) digital alerting and automotive capabilities is being studied in addition to illumination technology integrations from HiViz LED Lighting.
According to the description of the project in the contract award, as of 2021, there was no school bus V2X solution that, “exists in any meaningful scalable way…and there is no readily available solution to solve for school children being struck during evening hours when visibility is low.
Massa’s experience working as a firefighter, particularly directing traffic after car accidents, has contributed to his knowledge of the unique needs of emergency vehicle lighting. This unique perspective has helped Massa come up with technology to help students safely load and unload school buses.
“When they brought us the problem of, ‘kids are getting struck,’ we had to look at it from a different standpoint than every bus company that's ever looked at it. They’re looking at it through the lens of knowing how the bus industry works,” Massa says. “It's been 20 years since I've been in buses. So I thought, ‘let me just imagine I know nothing about school buses and start from there.’”
Marrying V2X Technology with LED Lighting
The researchers began doing testing to figure out what the optical characteristics were that caused problems with students crossing in front of the bus. The team found that the primary contributor that generally leads to children being hit by someone other than the bus driver is either a distracted driver or an impaired driver.
The team from HAAS Alert discovered that it could use nationwide cellular V2X technology that has a school bus route pre-programmed to send a preemptive digital alert from the school bus to oncoming motorists to make them aware there will be children loading and unloading a bus nearby.
“We’ve combined V2X teaching the system to learn bus stops and routes, this way it can predict when the bus is going to stop and transmit the alerts – providing additional motorist response time,” Massa explains.
Massa’s team is working on lighting solutions to ensure children are seen as they load and unload the bus.
“What we found with lighting is that when kids cross between the bus and oncoming traffic, they almost become a silhouette and eventually disappear when they cross in front of the headlights,” Massa says. “The reason for this phenomenon is that the child is backlit by a very close, very bright school bus headlight which is at the same level as the student. As oncoming traffic approaches, the intensity of an approaching vehicle’s headlights relative to the distance to the child is not sufficient to overcome the school bus’s headlight. When the distance between the bus and the child are equal to the distance between their headlight and the child, the child becomes visible, but by then, it’s too late.”
The solution? Eliminate the backlight and change the angle of the lighting. Massa’s team discovered that a better approach than bolting more lights to the bus was to illuminate the child from above.
The team created a light bar that attaches to the top of the bus. The rack mechanism sits on the bus and slides out, similar to a stop arm. As the mechanism extends, the school bus headlights turn off and the light bar illuminates the child from above.
“A lot of people would say you should never turn the headlights off. But it turns out that more light is just as bad as no light. You really need to put the right amount of light in the right location and allow the child to be illuminated properly from above versus from behind. If you can solve for that equation, a child's always visible.”
One of the roadblocks the researchers have run into is that some state laws require school bus headlights to be on when the bus is transporting children. Does that also apply when the bus is not in motion? This is something Massa’s team is looking into.
“If you had to have them on or you had to have them off with no other light source, on is probably better. But if you had to have them on or off with a secondary light source that’s mounted overhead that is illuminating the child from the top, that’s a way better environment for the child to be illuminated so that oncoming traffic can see that child while they’re crossing in front of the school bus.”
Massa says he recognizes the importance of the laws, and will work with regulators on whether they can be changed if transporting children also includes loading and unloading times.
Testing Out the Technology
Massa’s team has created a prototype of the product that he says has been proven to work in initial testing.
For phase two, the research team is seeking municipalities and school bus services that are interested in piloting these new technologies. The team needs a variety of environments — from small and rural to larger, more urban districts — to ensure the technology is tested in multiple settings.
Massa’s team is also asking for the support of the school bus and pupil transportation industry in continuing to advocate to their legislators for federal contracts aimed at making pupil transportation safer.
At the end of the phase two, the U.S. Department of Transportation will evaluate whether to grant a phase three contract, which would bring the product to commercially viable status, upon completion of the second phase.
Massa stresses the importance of having both the lighting and the C-V2X technology in order to make the loading and unloading process safer.
“You really need both technologies in order to make this whole solution work. And when you go back to the original charter of this contract, it was to make a safer environment for children crossing in front of the school bus,” he says.