NSTA Advocacy in Action — Lawmakers, Regulators: Show Us the (School Bus) Data

John Benish Jr.
Posted on January 22, 2020

File photo courtesy St. Marys (Ohio) City Schools
File photo courtesy St. Marys (Ohio) City Schools
Some of us remember one of my favorite movies, “Jerry Maguire,” from 1996. It stars Tom Cruise as a sports agent, with Cuba Gooding Jr. playing his client, wide receiver Rod Tidwell of the Arizona Cardinals. Tidwell’s famous line from the film was, “Show me the money!”

Tidwell’s basis for using that line was the fact that he had performed admirably for his team, and the Cardinals should reciprocate by paying him a lot more money for his new contract. After spending time with Jerry Maguire in some very funny scenes, Tidwell eventually got his money, and so the movie ended happily, and his famous line lives on.

You may ask how an iconic movie relates to school transportation. Here’s the reason I reference it: Over the past few months, readers have seen firsthand that I “bleed yellow.” I am forever proud of the fact that school buses are without question the safest way to get a student to and from school and school-related activities.

Having said that, my mind remains open on ways that we as an industry can improve. It’s incumbent upon everyone involved in school transportation to strive to be “perfect.” Unfortunately, there continues to be one big impediment that, in my view, holds us back: the sheer lack of basic data that accurately and adequately defines our industry.

Pupil transportation professionals don’t have the luxury of relying on assumptions as we utilize our resources. Having real and accurate data will allow us to have fruitful conversations about the future of pupil transportation, and that benefits everyone.

We live in an era defined by analytics, yet so many of the factors that we rely upon to initiate and make policy in the pupil transportation world are not actual data. In some cases, the information comes anecdotally, while at other times we make assumptions. For an industry as large as we are that provides the critical service we do in our communities, this is simply not good enough.

I’ll give you an example. Policy analysts like the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) rely upon the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe) to provide critical data analysis when completing investigations, issuing regulations, or offering proposals to the school transportation sector.

Although this data is often readily accepted as painting the complete picture of an issue, the details can actually provide a different outlook. In 2016, Volpe undertook a study, the “Motorcoach and School Bus Fire Safety Analysis,” which is now used regularly and features prominently in discussions about school bus safety.

However, in the preamble of this important report it states:

“Although there are credible estimates of the frequency of fires on all types of buses combined, motorcoach- and school bus-specific estimates are not easily found in state and federal accident statistics, national fire databases, and general media sources.”

My intention in making folks aware of this detail is not to be critical of the fine individuals at Volpe who spent considerable time and effort compiling this data; in fact, it’s just the opposite. It highlights the critical need for a clearinghouse of school bus data to be created, so we can accurately track, compile, and assess this data on a regular basis.

John Benish Jr. is the president of the National School Transportation Association.
John Benish Jr. is the president of the National School Transportation Association.

Why is this important? If you haven’t noticed, we may be in the throes of the information age, but the general attention span of the public continues to steadily decrease. When the policymakers tell the public that “one school bus fire occurs per day,” the natural inclination is to accept that as an irrefutable fact. Precious resources are then quickly deployed. It’s hard to know if this is an actual trend or a perceived trend without empirical data at our disposal. (Volpe utilizes extrapolated data, and that by nature can’t be as accurate as empirical data.)

Quite frankly, as an industry, pupil transportation professionals don’t have the luxury of relying on assumptions as we utilize our resources. Having real and accurate data will allow us to have fruitful conversations about the future of pupil transportation, and that benefits everyone, most of all the schoolchildren we transport.

Related Topics: bus fires, FMCSA, NHTSA, NSTA, NTSB

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