Detect to Protect: New State Laws Define Evolving School Bus Tech

New state laws illustrate evolving technology and requirements needed to define them, for making school buses even safer inside and out.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed Abigail’s Law in January 2016, eight-term Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan described its passage as a “long, uphill process.” The state representative for Middlesex, who was the lead sponsor of the bill requiring front and rear motion sensors on the outside of all newly manufactured buses to detect the movement of small children, wasn’t exaggerating. The legislation was named in memory of a 2-year-old Abigail Kuberiet, who was killed when she walked in front of a school bus in 2003.

Two months after the bill signing, Acting Gov. Kim Guadagno said the state’s residents “can be comforted knowing that we have taken steps to ensure that what happened to Abigail never happens to another child here in New Jersey.”

But, the long, uphill process isn’t over yet.

Eric Raphael, president of Irvin Raphael, Inc., and a board member for the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association, said the challenge for fleet managers is knowing exactly what meets the letter of the law because specifications were still in the works 15 months after the law’s passage.

“A couple companies came forward and said, ‘We have the technology to do this,’ but the New Jersey Department of Education hasn’t certified what is required yet,” Raphael said. “There are some good guesses about what is acceptable, but people are buying buses and hoping when the spec does come out that they’ve spent the money on whatever the solution is that meets the code at this time. That seems to be the frustrating part right now.”

Raphael, who was unfamiliar with the technology before the law’s passage, noted that his company has been testing two detection systems—a sensor system and a camera system—on its buses this past year. Both have “worked flawlessly,” but Raphael indicated questions remain.

“A concern for me in the future would be false positives of something in the danger zone and how the driver should proceed. I don’t know how we’re going to set up a procedure for what to do if you have a bus full of kids and the sensor goes off,” Raphael explained. “The driver can’t leave the bus with children aboard. How do you clear it before you pull away?” 

Absent current inspection regulations, maintenance is another concern.

“How are we going to inspect the sensor system? Are we going to walk around the bus? Put up cones? How do they check calibration?” he added. “There are a lot of unknowns. It’s all about getting the execution correct.”

Diegnan first introduced his legislation in 2004, but an insurmountable hurdle blocked earlier measures: Technology just wasn’t far enough along to meet legislative intent. The School Bus Manufacturers Technical Council within the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), has been advising New Jersey officials during the process, said NASDPTS Executive Director Charlie Hood, who said he favors “less design-specific and more-performance-specific” laws. 

“The thing I’m encouraged about the New Jersey experience is they’ve been listening to technical experts and manufacturers,” he added.

While different manufacturers tout different solutions, they all agree today’s driving environment differs from even the recent past as other motorists and pedestrians are distracted by the likes of texting, talking on cell phones and listening to music with ear buds.

“What are light vehicle manufacturers doing? They’re making it easier for your car to be a 4G hub. Now, you’re not just texting, you’re getting a presentation done on your way to a meeting,” said Fred Andersky, director of customer solutions and marketing controls at Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems. “Bus drivers need to be even more aware of pedestrians and other drivers today.”

Peter Plate, director of sales and marketing at Rosco Vision Systems, said the development of school bus detection systems has been a steady march since his company’s formation 110 years ago. The Jamaica, N.Y.-based firm started on a path that led to it becoming the largest supplier of mirror and digital vision systems in the North American school bus market.

“Everything has been in the spirit of helping drivers be more effective by giving them better tools to do their very important job,” Plate said. “It’s been a huge evolution.”

Rear-view camera systems have been part of that evolution over the past 20 years. NHTSA published a final rule several years ago requiring the technology on commercial vehicles. Compliance must reach 40 percent of the vehicles on the road, with 100-percent compliance due a year from now.

An early challenge, Plate said, was finding the right spot to place the camera monitor. Rosco developed technology to locate a monitor behind the driver’s rear-view mirror with ultra-bright lighting that activated only when the bus was in reverse.

“Some believe sensor and audible technology is the approach to take. We have approached this challenge differently and believe Abigail’s Law is better met through more visual than audible approaches. Our products meet the law’s intent and are very effective.”

Plate said he believes adoption of rear-view systems is going very fast, boosted by the technology’s increasing popularity in light vehicles. “We’re seeing and hearing more about vision safety than gas mileage, body design or other features. The fixation on camera safety has now trickled into the larger vehicle,” he said. “Our most sophisticated Transit Bus System Shield+ (a collaboration with Mobileye, which was recently purchased by Intel) can spot a collision course with a pedestrian, cyclist or vehicle and give the driver notice in time to stop the bus.”

Like many new technologies, costs are headed down as it appears on more buses, Plate said.

He insisted that there is “always room for improvement” with safety systems but added, “A visual system or properly working audible system is light years better than nothing.” In terms of where these systems are going, there will be more tie-ins to the safety system of the bus.”

Rostra Precision Controls, a Laurinburg, N.C.-based manufacturer of vehicle accessories is a supplier of rear-view camera systems but also began developing radar systems in the late 1990s to provide the heavy vehicle market with a product more responsive than ultrasonic systems.

Charles Monroe,Rostra product and accessories engineering manager, said the company’s obstacle sensing system uses microwave sensing technology to alert drivers to objects as far as 12 feet away behind or alongside the rear of a vehicle.

Many systems do not differentiate between stationary and moving objects causing inanimate objects to give false positives. Other systems may be vexed by snow, rain or mud obscuring their sensing ability, resulting in false positives or no readings at all, which was the case during an Iowa-state pilot test several years ago.

Monroe noted improved electronics technology in today’s systems have been refined to sound far fewer false positives, which are objects other than a student. An audible alarm offers an extra margin of safety when a driver might be distracted and not looking at a rear-view monitor. “The system doesn’t alarm if there’s nothing moving,” said Rostra national sales manager Mike Gaborcik. “If the bus is moving we will detect anything in the field of the sensor, such as a mailbox or utility pole, for example.”

“The laws are a little different in every state dealing with procedures for student transportation and standard bus equipment. If a state requires a crossing arm in the front of the bus, we can set the system so it shuts off when the crossing arm is in motion and comes back on after it stops moving to prevent false positives,” Monroe said. “If it’s a bus with special equipment such as a wheelchair lift, we have the ability to configure the system to work with it.”

Gaborcik added that such systems are in place only to enhance drivers’ skills. “They don’t remove the driver’s responsibility. They’re there to help drivers make the best decisions, not distract them,” Gaborcik explained. “Our system will have some false positives, but we are going to err on the side of safety and too much rather than not enough. I would rather send a signal when no one is there than not, when someone is (there) and have a fatality.”

Andersky said the “importance of integrated systems and functions is going to prove to be the winning hand” first with commercial vehicles and then with school buses.

Those systems—such as lane departure warning, speed-limit recognition, stability controls and automatic braking—will extend beyond simply information available on a single vehicle and instead will collect information from other vehicles on the road (vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V) and infrastructure (infrastructure-to-vehicle, or V2I). This communication promises to help onboard systems gain more insight and, potentially, enable earlier and more proactive alerts and interventions to assist drivers. It’s going to be more the sum rather than the parts, he explained.

“The same type of needs can exist in the school bus market. There’s no denying school buses are the safest mode of transportation, but often, school buses are going no more than 25 or 35 mph, and they stop and go a lot to pick up kids,” Andersky said. When you’re taking the football team or band to a game, all of a sudden, it’s not across town but cross-state. That’s where this and future technologies come more into play.”

Burgeoning features inside the bus can protect people outside the bus, too. Andersky pointed out that Intellipark, Bendix’s intelligent parking brake, could be unveiled as early as Sept. 25 through 28 at this year’s North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta.

“That big yellow parking brake knob attracts the attention of kids and they might accidentally release it. In the last six to eight months, we’ve seen two fatalities in those particular roll-away crashes,” Andersky said. “Intellipark realizes when the driver is not there and will reset the brake.”

Meanwhile, NASDTS’ Hood said he views Abigail’s Law as a “work in progress.” “The hope is that New Jersey will end up with a spec that others can look at and say, ‘That’s a pretty good model’ and something we can at least look at adopting at the (National Congress on School Transportation) in 2020, if it’s viable,” he continued.

In the end, Raphael said he remains cautiously optimistic about the implementation of Abigail’s Law. 

“In a perfect world, I would have liked to have seen more of a study done, a two-year pilot or something like that and some data collected,” he said. “But anything that makes buses safer, I’m all about.”

Reprinted from the May 2017 issue of School Transportation News magazine.

Last modified onWednesday, 03 May 2017 07:58