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Iowa Approves School Bus Mobile Data Devices

The Iowa Department of Education last month implemented new rules governing the use of mobile data terminals in school buses, which can be defined as tablets or GPS units used for routing or student information. 

Max Christensen, state director of student transportation, explained that a separate Iowa regulation also allows cell phones as secondary communication devices for drivers. Meanwhile, at least one school district—Perry—asked for permission to start using tablets on buses for activity trips. Figuring that other school districts were also interested in incorporating tablets, Christensen said it became evident further guidance was necessary.

“We didn’t want school bus drivers using cell phones trying to access their maps (apps) with only one hand on the wheel,” he explained.

Iowa is one of several states nationwide that do not ban cell phone use by school bus drivers while behind the wheel, but Christensen added that a law goes into effect on July 1 that makes texting while driving a primary offense.

Christensen surveyed fellow members of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services to gauge tablet usage and any regulations of the mobile devices on school buses. Twenty-one states responded, with 16 saying they allow mobile data terminals on school buses to provide routing directions.

Fifteen of those states added that they allow the mobile data terminals to capture student ridership data, of which six said tablets or other device screens must go “dark” for route maps when the bus is in motion to eliminate driver distraction. Five states said student ridership screens must go dark during bus operation.

Six states also said they have specific written guidelines, rules, statutes or policies that dictate where the devices can be placed in the bus and how they are to be used, which Christensen said influenced Iowa’s regulations.

Iowa’s regulation states that mobile data terminal screens must go dark when the bus is in motion, but the audio turn-by-turn instructions can remain active. Audio directions cannot use speakers within the passenger compartment.

The mobile data terminals may be mounted within the driver compartment, but the Department of Education gives final authority to state school bus inspection staff on approving their exact locations. Devices also cannot be mounted in any way such that they impede movement through the bus aisle and they cannot snag clothing, backpacks or other items.

The regulations state that bus drivers must be able to see the mobile data terminal at a glance, and the device cannot obstruct the view of mirrors, vehicle instruments, the roadway, highway signs, signals, the entrance door, or student passengers.

Software programs loaded on the device, if utilized, shall be specific to school bus operations such as, but not limited to, passenger accountability, routing, navigation, emergency notification, tracking, messaging and equipment monitoring.

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