School Bus IQ

Ron Johnson, director of purchasing and transportation at Oak Park and River Forest High School District near Chicago, reviews audio and video camera footage as well as a GPS dashboard. Ron Johnson, director of purchasing and transportation at Oak Park and River Forest High School District near Chicago, reviews audio and video camera footage as well as a GPS dashboard.

School district transportation departments across America will agree that priority No. 1 is student safety. This can be achieved in many ways, one of which is being tracked by the use GPS. 

Known to many because of consumer applications like Garmin and Tom-Tom, GPS basically uses signals from satellites to tell you where you are and to give directions to other places. But for commercial fleets, it means so much more.

Telematics is the actual vehicle data that comes from GPS usage and can encompass telecommunications, vehicular technologies, electrical engineering, road safety, and Internet service. Together, GPS and telematics have been used in the school bus industry for the past decade but only over the last few years has the power of them been fully realized, as demonstrated by several districts from across the nation that are leading the technology trend. 

One of these is Oak Park River Forest High School District 200 near Chicago, which uses Verizon Networkfleet Onboard Telematics. Ron Johnson, director of transportation, said this system works through a tamper-proof cable connected to a computer behind the dashboard that sends data alerting the department of problems via email. “We use email as a delivery set up method because more information can be transmitted that way instead of the texting method,” Johnson said. 

An example of real-time telematics reporting would be to include monitoring of spark plugs and other engine parts which may be malfunctioning. But more so, it’s positively affecting student safety.

“Since the implementation of the telematics, there have been no bus accidents,” Johnson said. District 200 operates a hybrid school bus system, meaning it contracts out its regular education busing but owns and operates a smaller fleet of nine buses used for student activity trips and special needs routes.

The district-owned buses are equipped with the Verizon GPS solution. Oak Park River Forest favors GPS telematics to not only monitor the bus engine but also to gauge driver performance behind the wheel. In addition, the use of Rosco Dual Vision windshield cameras with vehicle tracking and monitoring allows the district to obtain data on range of incidents, from including when a driver hits the brakes. 

Together, the technologies contribute to the district’s safety offerings. Johnson reported that the telematics system immediately began paying dividends for the district’s maintenance operations. It reported data that uncovered the need to replace a $268 valve, which prevented a transmission failure that could have cost the district $4,000 to replace. 

Johnson added that the initial start-up cost and device installation was $80 per bus, plus adaptor cords for each bus at $30 each. The monthly subscription for the Verizon service is $18 per month per vehicle, which Johnson explained ends up saving the district $8,000 to $10,000 in annual repairs.

Another district relying on GPS and telematics is Galena Park Independent School District in Houston. Anthony Gager, director for fleet maintenance, said the district transports 4,500 students and has utilized GPS for eight years in 128 buses as well as 100 vans and other district vehicles. The system determines vehicle location, vehicle speed and even each instance of the loading doors opening and closing. The district uses the Edulog Location Messaging Unit manufactured by CalAmp, which was installed by district maintenance staff. 

The district received money for the project from a bond election and within a year, installation was complete. The district as also able to upgrade analog video cameras to digital models. Each school year, the district budgets for system maintenance, software licenses and other recurring GPS system expenses.

Gager stated that the biggest advantage of the system comes from providing better customer service to students and their parents as well as providing an even higher quality of safety along with the ability to track speeding buses.

On the East Coast, Tammy Hall is director of transportation for Kent County in Rock Hall, Maryland. This smaller district located along the state’s Eastern Shore uses Zonar GPS in 26 routed buses serving pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students. Zonar installed the units in the contractor-owned equipment.  Grant money from the Maryland Association Board of Education was used for the project.

Kent County uses GPS and Zonar Ground Traffic Control software to record driver start and stop times along with the number of miles each driver tallies each day. Driver payroll is then automatically calculated based on individual data. But streamlining payroll is a bonus compared to the district’s primary objectives of defining idle time for each bus, determining where and when the bus stops and increasing driver accountability. The district has achieved financial savings through monitoring and reduction of idle time. 

“In monitoring driver miles, Kent County School District has realized a 15 per cent annual savings because of actual driver accountability,” Hall said. “Over 2,300 miles were saved annually, on one bus alone due to this monitoring.”

Meanwhile, Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Arizona uses Zonar GPS along with Versatrans Fleetvision management software from Tyler Technologies and have been upgraded several times. Transportation Director Steve Daigle said the district originally used GPS to monitor bus idle times and to verify and manage pre- and post-trip inspections with Zonar’s Electronic Vehicle Inspection Report, or EVIR. The technology has been expanded to include Child Check-Mate, requiring school bus drivers to ensure that no students, sleeping or otherwise, are left alone on the bus at the conclusion or routes.

Now, Daigle reported that the primary objective of using telematics is to track the exact location of each bus and to calculate arrival time. It also monitors idle time and fuel consumption, as well as the use of the Child Check-Mate.

Synovia GPS is the choice for School District 13 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Transportation Director Chad Barksdale said that all 70 school buses are equipped with the system. With Synovia, the district was given the option to pay for the solution over a five-year period, with the equipment lease renewable after that time. The district pays a monthly fee, including an upcharge for spreading the payments out, but Barksdale said the cost fits nicely within the transportation budget, adding that the GPS system saves money for the district in the long run. It is also used for mapping routes, indicating when bus doors open and close and for tracking the idle time of each bus.

“The biggest advantages are that our system tells where the buses are, are they on time, and that we can use it for tracking idle time,” Barksdale said. 

By reducing idle time, he added that the system pays for itself by helping the district save on fuel costs. The system sends an excess idling report, then the idle times are discussed with drivers. The Synovia system carries only a 30-second time delay on all information, which is transmitted to the dispatcher via email.

Todd Duncan, assistant director for transportation for Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada, assists in overseeing 320 buses that transport 19,000 students. Zonar GPS is used throughout the department’s fleet. Among its many uses, the system issues speed reports, and idle reports.

The Zonar GPS captures history every 30 seconds on a refresh screen. Washoe County Schools has three site facilities with shops and maintenance at each. A centralized area functions for central dispatch, routers and training staff.

On the initial purchase, Zonar supplied all the hardware, which was installed by a third party provider. The service charge for this large fleet is $100,000 per year and is funded through the district’s general fund operating budget. “Keeping our students safe is the name of the game,” Duncan said. “Use of telematics in the newer buses increases safety and contributes to the safety of the drivers and students.”

Implemented in 2008, telematics reduces fuel costs and reduces idling for Nevada’s second largest district. A vehicle’s computer communicates with fleet maintenance spotting fault codes and offering much savings to the district. Washoe County also uses Zonar Z Pass in conjunction with Child Check-Mate to scan student RFID cards to ensure no students are left behind at the end of a route. Zonar EVIR is also used as a hand held device for pre-trip inspections.

Versatrans Onscreen interfaces with Zonar and enables dispatchers to monitor each bus and ensure none go off-route. Information retrieved can assist in answering parent questions, monitor speeding and provide good customer service, added Duncan. 

This article appeared in the April issue of School Transportation News.