Retrograde and Retrofits

In this installment, we are going to discuss an important element of bus stop safety: The bus.

Most members of the pupil transportation community know how vast our national school bus fleet is – close to half a million vehicles. Yet it is often hard to place such a fleet in perspective. One way is to recognize that while field trips represent only four percent of all school-related trips, these same trips comprise a whopping 30 percent of all motorcoach trips. Further, the home-to-school trips that schoolchildren take on fixed route bus and rail represent 15 percent of all transit trips.

Us Versus Them

Americans in the transit and motorcoach fields are envious of the public-transportation orientation of European and Asian countries, and the size of their transit and motorcoach fleets. Yet, to a reasonable degree, our school bus fleet compares with the size of their bus and coach fleets. From a safety perspective, US and Canadian school buses are significantly more important because their trips are provided mostly to passengers who do not yet possess the skills to cross a street. According to the only in-depth study (conducted in Sweden, in 1968) of which I am aware, individuals do not fully possess the skills to cross a reasonably complex intersection until roughly age 13. Below age 10, these skills are woeful, and children in this age group lack the skills to cross even a simple street without assistance.

While I will summarize these perceptual differences in a future installment of STN, one example illustrates the qualitative differences between an adults knowledge and perceptual abilities compared to those of an elementary school-age child:

  • A typical adult has a field-of-vision roughly 140 degrees wide.
  • By comparison, children below age 10 possess only a 70 percent field-of-vision.

Flashers and Mixed Fleets

As all serious school bus industry professionals and STN readers know, a modern school bus is not only a moving traffic signal, but even contains a physical stop sign (arm) and crossing guard similar to equipment required, almost universally, at railroad crossings. To omit some of these devices at a railroad crossing would be unthinkable. Yet we allow school buses without such devices to operate alongside vehicles, in the same fleet, that don’t have any of them. In most states, drivers of buses with amber lights (i.e., eight-way flashers) are even required to follow different crossing procedures.

Because of the “mixed fleets” so many school districts deploy, motorists, passengers, pedestrians and even many school bus drivers do not even know what a red flasher signifies. Compounding this, many schoobus drivers operating “four-way” buses are aware of their missing “ambers,” and engage their turn signals as a substitute – anointing their districts’ pupil transportation services with three variations of crossing procedures. Worse still, a few states (like California) have the same requirements for engaging the red flashers on a “four-way” bus as they do on an “eight-way” bus. As a result of these differences, a significant percentage of school bus passengers, their parents, motorists and school bus drivers think that the red flashers signal the time for students to enter the roadway and cross the street. God help the child who’s family just moved from one state to another.

Because no Federal funds are available for purchasing, much less operating, this gigantic fleet, there is no Federal requirement for updating crossing equipment to match Federal requirements for newly-manufactured school buses. Similarly, the requirement in more than 30 states to also install crossing control guards is not yet a Federal requirement – although most new school buses in most states are equipped with these devices. A few states, like Missouri, have retrofit requirements. And some of the largest school bus contractors have, similarly, updated their entire North American fleets with this equipment. In contrast, many large states, like Michigan and California, do not mandate the retrofitting of any equipment manufactured before the requirements were promulgated. Particularly in states where Crowns and Gilligs were the standard vehicles, or the only vehicles that met their state’s school bus specifications (both companies ceased production of school buses in 1991), “mixed fleets” are common to a large percentage of school districts.

Falling Behind and Changing Colors

School districts in California, Oregon and Washington have enjoyed the benefits of life-cycle costing, as many of the Crowns and Gilligs they purchased in the Seventies and Eighties are still operating in passenger service, saving these districts considerable money otherwise spent purchasing new buses. At the same time, many school districts in these states, particularly in tax-strapped California, have failed to direct these savings into the modernization of their pre-1991 vehicles. Because most of our movies and T.V. shows are shot in Hollywood, their audiences are routinely exposed to “retro” school buses as art deco as the viewers’ salmon pink living rooms. This reality, and our failure to retrofit most of these older vehicles, haunts these school districts when a crossing incident occurs. This is particularly true in states where pupil transportation services and their vehicles are considered “common carriers” and, as a consequence, held to the highest duty and standard of care. The lack of such equipment is even more problematic in states whose legal systems include triggers to award a “treble” damages and/or open-ended punitive damages. Frankly, it would be nearly impossible for a school district to argue that it met the standards of a common carrier if the school bus involved in the incident did not have a crossing control guard, much less a stop arm and amber flashers – two components that became Federal requirements more than two decades ago.

In my opinion – and the subject of yet another future article – I feel that school buses should have 12-way flashers: Without a green light, and particularly where a mix of 4-way and 8-way buses are deployed, many motorists do not understand the message sent by a school buses’ red flashers. They do not understand when they are supposed to stop because there is no easily-recognizable signal for them to begin moving forward again. In at least one state I know of (New Jersey), motorists approaching a school bus with its red flashers engaged on or near the school grounds do not even have to stop. Instead, they are permitted to cruise through the red signals as long as their speeds do not exceed 10 miles per hour.

Given the central purpose of school buses to begin with (i.e., facilitating crossing safety), the most urgent need — apart from having enough buses altogether – is to retrofit the buses we already have with the full array of proven crossing devices. In a crossing-related lawsuit, a school district that bought new school buses without retrofitting its existing vehicles with up-to-date equipment will likely lose the suit. This is even more likely if the district purchased Type D buses since the additional money spent on a single Type D bus – compared to one Type C bus – would likely cover cost of retrofitting a dozen four-way buses with amber flashers, stop arms and crossing control guards.

Dazzling, Dozing and Dawdling

I am intrigued and occasionally dazzled by the continual refinements in crossing equipment I read about and examine at trade shows. However, no purchase is remotely as important as those that bring existing buses’ crossing equipment up to date. With one sixth of our nation’s entire school bus fleet now directed by a single private contractor whose entire fleet is up-to-date, the “highest duty and standard of care” lies in plain view of every accident victim’s attorney.

We may be comforted by the stream of “retro” Crown school buses that traverse our T.V. and movie screens. But such comfort is a dangerous illusion. Retrofitting our entire nation’s fleet with modern crossing equipment is not a footnote or reference point. It is an urgent priority. We need to wake up and make better choices when spending taxpayers’ money. If we fall asleep at the switch, we’re going to continue paying for it with far more lives than our institutions are willing to count and acknowledge.

Publications: School Transportation News.