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Leveraging the Power of the Iconic Yellow School Bus

The yellow school bus is famous. We may not fill stadiums like Taylor Swift, but we pack schools with kids to give them the opportunity to learn. You know a school bus instantly by its distinctive appearance, association with education and safety, the sense of nostalgia it evokes, and its representation in culture and media. How does the industry use that superstar fame to its advantage?

Over the last two years, I have seen school transportation propelled into the national spotlight with more headlines than I can remember. Consider the large amount of media coverage around the movement toward zero-emission school buses. Vice President Kamala Harris gushed yellow school bus nostalgia. “Who doesn’t love a yellow school bus, right? Can you raise your hand if you love a yellow school bus?” she said.

It’s no coincidence that the most federal funding in industry history has resulted. I hope you plan on taking advantage of these funds, as the latest EPA Clean School Bus Program rebate window runs through January. There is a growing perception that school buses are becoming more environmentally friendly with electric and propane buses gaining traction for their contributions to reduce NOx and the number of cars on the road.

On the flip-side, diesel school buses get a bad rap for being dirty and having a negative impact on student health. This is true for older diesel buses but not the newest. The
environmental impact of school buses can vary depending on fuel type, maintenance practices, and the age of the fleet. Older, less fuel-efficient buses typically have a larger carbon footprint. Many school districts struggle with budget constraints, resulting in aging school bus fleets that may not meet the latest technology standards.

Does the school bus industry have an opportunity to change the public perception of school buses being antiquated and non-technological? Absolutely. Those perceptions can be impacted by various factors, including public opinion, media coverage, regulations, and the actual performance and safety of the school bus.

Does this perception impact our industry’s ability to attract talent? I believe it does. A recent article written by Taylor Ekbatani at stnonline.com/go/hn highlights how one school district is helping staff, educators, students and the school bus drivers themselves improve the personal perception of this important role, increasing value and respect. You aren’t “just a school bus driver.” You are the person in charge of the safety of countless student lives daily. It’s powerful when you flip the words, but it takes time, energy and tenacity to change people’s perception of this vitally important role.

Are your school buses viewed as reliable and punctual, ensuring that students arrive at school on time safely? I’m sure you hope that is the case, but as we saw during school
startup the picture isn’t always pretty. For example, Columbus City Schools had to cancel classes due to the poor route planning and a driver shortage, according to local
media reports. Not a good look for the school district, plus it builds a negative perception throughout the community.

The school transportation industry and the federal government cite school buses as the safest modes of transportation for students. These statistics are often associated with providing a secure and protected environment for children during their daily commute
to and from school. The reality is that despite the high safety standards, crashes, injuries and fatalities involving school buses still happen. When they do, negative news media coverage impacts public perception of school bus safety. Take for example the recent rollover crash in Ohio. This has called into question school bus safety, putting a bright light on the advantages of lap/shoulder seatbelts.

Did your school district or company highlight positive safety messages to your community during School Bus Safety week last month?

It’s essential for stakeholders to be aware of the discrepancies and work toward aligning perception with reality, ensuring the safety and well-being of students who rely on school bus services. Keep in mind that reality can differ due to factors like budget constraints, varying levels of regulatory oversight, and the age of the bus fleet. The technological evolution in green energy is also a golden opportunity to spread the word to everyone in your communities and stakeholders that your grandfather’s clunky, old and dirty black smoke spewing yellow bus is no more.

The school bus serves as a symbol of childhood, community and the educational system, making it a powerful and enduring icon in the U.S., Canada and beyond. It’s our time to redefine perception and show people the new reality of a safer, greener and cleaner future.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the November 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

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