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Technology Abounds, But What Are You Going to Do With It?

Over the years, this magazine has increasingly focused on technology, fitting for the times. Decades ago, after all, electric buses and artificial intelligence-driven routing software and video cameras were the things of science fiction movies. Today’s school buses, while they largely look similar to what we rode as students to and from school or related activities, can require advanced training and certification to simply operate them. Computers play a vital role in diagnostics and tuning. Who would have thought 30 years ago that they would replace the wrench?

(OK, wrenches are still necessary, but my point is school buses have come a long way, as have the people who operate and maintain them.)

This month, we look at how school districts have responded to the sunsetting of 3G wireless communications devices and the transition to 4G technology to drive the latest GPS and tablets. The experts note that the new 5G networks are for cell phones, and transportation won’t need that increased bandwidth for another decade. But time goes by fast. Are you beginning to prepare questions now for vendors to address procurement needs in five to 10 years? Or are you leaving those decisions for someone else. Planning your successor, perhaps?

This along with Wi-Fi hotspots, AI for video cameras and footage, and culling data in the bus garage are exciting developments, for sure when there are funding mechanisms in place to pay for them. They can also be nerve wracking, as department leaders juggle learning curves with finding adequate staff power to operate the technology. But the end-result should be that operations become more efficient, to allow districts to do more with less.

If school buses are to be truly viewed as extensions of the classroom, or more aptly as the preferred conduits to get children to school ready to learn, student transporters must make the case for a continued seat at the budgetary table. Data is a great way to tell that story. But let’s also not lose focus on the reasons these technology solutions are necessary. There would be no need for video cameras or routing software, or Wi-Fi hotspots to allow students to catch up on homework or to pass video footage seamlessly from bus to dispatch without the student riders.

Ultimately, it’s the positive safety impacts that the industry is truly seeking. Data is the key to showing the powers that be that the school busing model still works and that it provides safe passage to and from school.

The reality is, however, that more than ever there are also competing options for getting kids to and from school—school bus ridership nationwide decreased to some 16.6 million in 2017, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey, and school bus ridership continued to decrease through the COVID-19 pandemic. Student transportation has always encompassed more than simply school buses, but now student transporters have the opportunity to hold influence over a wider net, cast for students who rely on some other way to school besides Mom and Dad. And technology offers opportunities to direct and manage student transportation services using non-yellow vehicles. Meanwhile, student transporters can partner with state and local Safe Routes to School Programs to create walking and biking paths to and from school. Student transporters are stewards of safety in their communities. How can they even influence teen driver programs, which organizations like the National Transportation Safety Board continuously target in the effort to realize net zero traffic fatalities?

When looking to adopt the latest bells and whistles, let your judgements ultimately fall on selecting the solutions that would best impact safety for the students served, no matter the mode they or their parents choose.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2022 issue of School Transportation News

Related: The 5G Reveal: Do I Need This Technology Now for Student Transportation?
Related: Tennessee District Uses AI Technology to Improve Fleet Efficiency
Related: (STN Podcast E94): Training, Technology & Teamwork: Pennsylvania District Ready to Go in 2022

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