CANANDAIGUA – It’s yellow. It’s 30-some feet long. It’s full of kids.
Must be a school bus.
You could have said that 45 years ago — or today. But the buses of today and the buses of yesterday, and not too long ago, are much different vehicles.
“New York is probably the most stringent state in the nation as far as bus safety,” said Jeremy Bricks, the transportation safety coordinator for the Palmyra-Macedon school district.
That attention to safety began in earnest the morning of March 24, 1972, on Gilchrest Road between Valley Cottage and Congers, two small towns 25 miles north of New York City. On that morning, before 9 a.m., a Penn Central train cut a school bus in half, killing five and seriously injuring many more.
Because the train was going slowly, the fact that the bus came apart so easily alarmed many, and new safety standards began in a wave. From that day, New York has repeatedly reacted to safety issues with new legislation and regulations.
The first change was that the structure of the bus cab itself must be braced and designed so it would stay intact and shield students. When a student was decapitated in an accident in the 1990s, new regulations decreed that bus windows could only go down five inches. When grab rails were catching and dragging students by their book bags, they were redesigned without pinchpoints.
Now, when you walk around a school bus looking for new things, you don’t have to look far. In fact, you can find some of them with your eyes closed. Stand behind a new diesel bus, for instance.
“Probably the biggest change in the last three to four years is the improvement in diesel engines,” said Darren Everhart, director of transportation for the Victor school district. “They are extremely efficient and clean-burning. Really, a bus is an incredible vehicle. Every year, they manufacture this amazingly safe bus.”
“A biodiesel engine has cleaner exhaust than the fresh air coming in the front end of the bus,” added Bricks. “There are so many filter systems in the diesel — they are very clean vehicles.”
Or you could check out a school bus in the dark while the driver lights up the bus, turning everything on. It is a very, very bright object. Bricks figures the newest school buses have 85 lights on them, and many are now LED lights. Buses also have strobe lights for nighttime and bad-weather visibility.
“The visibility of today’s buses is vastly superior,” Everhart said. He described how the “Jersey lights” — the four big red lights and yellow lights on every bus — are now LED-powered, as are the “clearance lights” that delineate the outline of a bus.
Buses also have stop signs that move out to warn motorists not to pass while children are disembarking and coming out into the street. Some buses even have a wand on front bumpers that extends as a barrier and walking lane for children.
Bricks said engineers have also changed the design and placement of mirrors to give drivers a better look around the bus.
“A driver can see if someone is standing directly in front of the bus, can see the side of the bus, everything behind the bus, except for that little triangle directly behind the bus. There’s a triangle the width of the back bumper, to 20 feet behind the bus, can’t pick up anything with mirror. What the manufacturers did to compensate is to put a glass window at the bottom of the rear emergency door — the driver can see out that window.”
Most buses now have two doors, and many have three. On the inside of the bus, there are red emergency lights above each door.
“When you look at the inside of a bus, the seats are higher than you might remember from years ago, and they’re padded, with seat belts,” said Midlakes Superintendent Mike Ford. “They’re still fairly cramped, and there’s not a lot of leg room, and the seating capacity is still very similar.”
But there’s more beneath the surface. Years ago, buses had one heater, and it was up in front, close to the person driving.
No more.
“There are more heaters on a school bus now,” Bricks said. “We have five in ours — one in the rear, a defroster, a heater for the driver, one in the stepwell and one in the middle of the bus. We could order more if we wanted to. It gets pretty warm in there — a lot of times we only turn the rear heater on, and that heats up the bus.”
Cameras are also standard equipment today, with every bus having multiple digital heads.
“We have a three-head system,” said Everhart, “one camera in front looking back, one in the middle looking back, and one in the back looking front.” Some school districts will also put a camera head in one or more locations outside a bus.
Bricks pointed out changes in the basic wiring of school buses, which now use multiplex wiring.
“That means less wiring is needed to travel through a bus, and it uses a lower voltage, so there’s less risk of fires,” he said. “That’s been around 89 years. It used to be you’d open up the hood of a bus and it looked like a pound of spaghetti in there; now it’s much neater.”
The driver
Beyond wiring, a great deal has been done to improve the driver’s visibility, comfort, control and safety. All bus drivers must wear a seat belt. The cabin at the front of the bus is meticulously designed to give them the greatest visibility — engine cowlings are sloped away from them to make sure small children cannot stand in front of the bus without the driver seeing. Mirror placements and door glass provide a good look at what could be potential blind spots.
“There’s more viewing area to the right,” said Lisa Kornbau, the Midlakes director of transportation, “more glass area. Also, the driver has an ergonomic panel in front of him or her — everything the driver needs is in view, easy to reach.”
Midlakes uses an automatic door-opening pushbutton switch, not the lever system.
“It used to be that a driver’s seat was bolted to the floor of the bus and the driver had to adjust to the seat, not the other way around,” said Bricks. “Now there are some creature comforts for the drivers. The seats are very adjustable; they’re air-ride seats and can move backwards and frontwards.
“We can also purchase adjustable pedals,” Bricks added. “The steering wheels are telescopic. Most school buses have electronic adjustable mirrors just like you have in your car. We have two rear-view mirrors on each side, one regular, one convex.”
Transportation directors also point out that all drivers now must participate in ongoing testing, and all buses are inspected regularly.
Replacing buses
School districts in this area buy and maintain their own buses. Keeping them as long as possible, in safe operating condition, is both a necessity and a calling.
“We keep ours in service 10 to 12 years,” said Kornbau, “some of them over 200,000 miles. We get good mileage out of them.”
Ford added, “When a bus is no longer what our mechanics deem dependable, we replace the bus, in a normal cycle. The last thing we want in the middle of the winter is a bus breaking down.”
Midlakes will buy two buses this year, one an 81-passenger Blue Bird.
Pal-Mac is buying three larger buses and two van-sized buses this year. Bricks said his bigger buses will go 100,000 miles before needing replacement; the smaller ones can exceed 170,000 miles. In either case, the shelf life of a bus is about 10 years. The big buses are Thomas models.
“My head mechanic and I make an evaluation of our buses every year,” said Everhart. “Typically, it’s the oldest ones that need to go. The number fluctuates year after year, depending on what was done 11 years ago (when the buses were purchased).”
He said the purchase cycle had been static, but Victor is growing so fast, the school system will buy four large 77-passenger Blue Bird models in the next school year. However, the following year, as enrollment grows, the district will need six of the larger buses.
Bells and whistles
Buses equipped with GPS systems are a rarity in this area. The digital camera systems provide features that would allow for retracing a bus route, if needed.
“We have a passive GPS system in our cameras,” said Bricks. “We can pull and see what the bus did, its speed and times.”
In Bloomfield, five of the school district’s 65-passenger Blue Bird buses were equipped with WiFi about a month ago as part of a Wayne-Finger Lakes Board of Cooperative Educational Services pilot project.
Seth Clearman, director of transportation for the Bloomfield district, marvels at the transformation that can occur when a small change is made.
“The reaction of students has been great,” he said. “The kids love it. Even the little kids.”
“Everybody seems to have iPods, but they can only use them if wireless is available,” he added. “The iPods are WiFi-capable. In the bus, you can use an iPad or laptop — anything that is WiFi compatible.”
He said the WiFi buses are very popular with sports teams.
“A lot of their trips are almost an hour away,” Clearman said. “Kids who are in a sport have to maintain a good grade average — this is an incentive to get them to access their homework online and do the work while riding to and from the game. Some kids do it; some don’t. Even if we just have a few who take advantage of the system, we’re ahead.”
Through the district’s involvement with the pilot, Clearman admits he’s become popular.
“Many schools are looking into WiFi now,” he said. “We’re the ones who have it. They’ve heard what’s going on and want to look into it.”