Pedestrian collision avoidance systems, and improved, road-tested vehicle headlights, are among 11 recommendations that were approved in September 2018 by the National Transportation Safety Board to increase pedestrian safety.
If enacted, both measures could eventually benefit students who ride school buses. The pedestrian collision avoidance system would alert school bus drivers that objects detected in the danger zone are actually students. The headlight requirement for vehicles would give motorists a farther field of vision to see students crossing the street to board buses in dark morning hours.
The recommendations comprise a suggested “to do” list for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Highway Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They are the result of a two-year NTSB investigation and address vehicle design, infrastructure planning and data sharing.
Eight of the recommendations are for NHTSA, two are for the FHA and one is directed at the CDC.
The recommendations are part of a special investigation report that was unveiled during a two-hour board meeting on Sept. 25, where NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said enough is enough.
“Each year, more and more of us are getting hit by cars and dying, and that has to stop,” Sumwalt said at the outset of the meeting. “About 16 pedestrians die in crashes every day and it’s getting steadily worse (during) the past decade.”
Citing information that was in the special investigative report, Sumwalt said that a significant portion of all road fatalities in 2007 occurred to pedestrians. By 2016, that number climbed to 18 percent. “That is one of every six people killed on the nation’s roadways were pedestrians,” Sumwalt explained. “Pedestrian fatalities increased by 27 percent during that 10-year period, even as overall highway fatalities decreased by 14 percent.”
The NTSB developed its recommendations after investigating 15 fatal crashes involving pedestrians in several states. The only one involving a school bus was on Oct. 14, 2016. The bus driver was starting his afternoon route with no children on board when he made an ill-advised right turn and struck a woman in a marked crosswalk.
Some of the technology suggested by NTSB’s recommendations, such as collision avoidance systems, have already trickled down from the commercial sector to school districts and its buses. While 360-degree camera systems give school bus drivers an overhead view of the danger zone around the bus, the collision avoidance systems can only detect other vehicles and inanimate objects.
Another issue local districts are dealing with is pedestrian warning systems on electric school buses. Electric vehicles are so quiet that manufacturers and the school districts that operate them said they believe that some type of warning system is needed to alert students and other pedestrians that the bus is approaching.
“In our view it’s a necessary component of the electric school bus because they are so quiet,” said Nate Baguio, vice president of sales for The Lion Electric Co., which manufactures Type C electric school buses. “We are installing them on our electric buses as standard equipment even though it is not mandated by law.”
Iinstead of a blaring horn or alarm, Baguio explained, music is played through the bus grille from a speaker that is installed under the hood. The warning system is activated whenever the bus decelerates below 20 miles per hour, or a speed determined by the school district. He said the music may also be customized per the district’s request.
“We decided on music instead of an alarm, because it is better when picking up students in neighborhoods in the morning,” Baguio continued. “It’s just loud enough and focused toward students at a stop, so they know to stay clear of the danger zone.”
Lion put its first electric bus on the road in 2015. The Canada-based company said it has 150 electric buses in operation nationwide and 50 in California.
The Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento owns 16 electric buses, which is the largest electric bus fleet operated by a school district in the U.S. Transportation Director Tim Shannon has eight eLion buses, and said the melodic tone they play mimics the sound of the Montreal subway, not far from Lion’s corporate headquarters, to alert people of an oncoming train.
“It gives great awareness that a bus is approaching, especially when you’re walking in the bus yard,” Shannon said. “It’s important that people have an awareness that a large vehicle is approaching them.”
Shannon is working with the California Association of School Transportation Officials and the California Highway Patrol on a proposal he wrote that seeks legislation to require the warning system as standard equipment on all electric school buses in the state. “I have no doubt it will move forward,” Shannon said. “As new technology is developed, we need updated guidelines on how it is applied.”
Meanwhile, NTSB’s headlights recommendation is significant, because one of the most cited reasons made by drivers who hit students in the early morning hours is they didn’t see them. This excuse prompted Steve Gardner to develop the Guardian Angel School Bus Safety Lighting System, a bright LED light that fits under the front bumper of the bus and shines across the roadway to illuminate the path where students are crossing to or from the bus. The system has been approved in 18 states.
“The feedback has been 100-percent positive,” said Gardner, who was a bus mechanic for 20 years and a fleet supervisor for 15 years. “There have been no complaints from anyone. I know what I’m talking about, this is about saving lives.”
Gardner said not all buses need his lighting system. “It depends on the lighting along the route.”
He said he developed the lighting system after a 15-year-old student was killed in the morning hours by a driver who said she didn’t see her.
“I had a daughter the same age at home,” Gardner added.