School buses are known to be the safest method of transporting kids to school—70 times safer than traveling by car. School bus design improvements and a variety of safety products and technologies all contribute to helping school buses maintain this distinction. Industry insight gathered on safety incidents involving school buses, however, shows that being outside of the bus, in the “Danger Zone,” poses the highest risk to children.
Early safety equipment, such as stop arms, amber and red warning lights, strobes, driver LED alert signage and even the yellow paint, was designed to alert motorists to stop for the school bus. Safety standards continue to be introduced to protect children in this sensitive area. Yet the bus still remarkably remains “invisible.”
The 2018 NASDPTS illegal school bus passing survey revealed almost 84,000 illegal passes in 38 states in a single day. That translates to over 15 million in one school year.
More recently, school bus drivers have also been able to rely on the use of cross-view mirrors, back-up cameras, crossing arms, and video surveillance systems, to help improve blind spot visibility. Unfortunately, nearly 64 percent of the 102 school transportation-related student fatalities between 2006 and 2015 were caused by their own school bus.
Legislation, policies, driver training, and bus safety education, complement the safety equipment and technology that are available on the school bus. But we find ourselves with the same tragic outcome—children are still being injured and killed every year, in accidents that could be prevented.
Nationally, our cities and towns are growing; the U.S. population grew by 16.4 million from 2010 to 2017. The number of cars on our streets has grown by 27.4 million between 2012 and 2018, and driver distraction is at an all-time-high, claiming 3,450 lives and injuring another 391,000 in 2016 alone. We have access to cost-effective technology to help us thrive among all of this change. Yet, as it relates to safety, and specifically school bus safety, what we’ve done to date is still not enough; children are still at risk.
Clearly, we need to change our approach to school bus safety. If we are to truly protect children in the danger zone, we must turn our focus to the perimeter of the bus.
We Need to Change our Approach
We’ve been trying to tackle this critical issue as an industry for years. Stop-arms, crossing gates, and cameras, have each helped to reduce the number of fatal injuries and improve safety. But to get the number of children killed in school transportation-related crashes over the next decade moving towards zero, we need to acknowledge that any tool or technology that doesn’t actively assist drivers by enhancing their abilities, can only accomplish so much.
We could have mirrors, flashing lights, signage, and video over every inch of the bus, providing drivers with endless views and perspectives, but if at any given moment that driver is not looking at those views, he or she will be none the wiser.
Adding sensors to their arsenal provides drivers with active notifications, which is at face-value a good thing. But while sensors bring a certain value to the safety solution mix, they can also detract from it too—in the form of over-alerting with false alarms.
There is also the additional challenge of missing context when it comes to sensor usage. What do you do if you are a school bus driver and a proximity sensor goes off? Even if your sensor displays a specific zone of reference, you still don’t know what caused the sensor to alarm and you can’t see anything in that zone. What do you do with this information? The alarm could mean anything. Your only option is to get out and investigate, which is not helpful, and also leaves children on the bus unattended.
Mirrors and video on their own, and sensors on their own, are good, but far more safety value is derived when they are all used in conjunction with one another. Together they provide the context that is critical.
Combining video and sensors does not, however, solve the challenge of over-alerting sensors. Tackling this obstacle requires the addition of intelligence. We need to enable intelligence on the vehicle itself and move beyond the driver and the driver’s role in delivering safety on and around their vehicle. It’s important to note here that this does not signal a reduction in driver responsibility, nor the beginning of the end of the role of the driver. The goal here is to help drivers function as best as possible, including increasing their ability to provide a very high level of safety.
As we look to the future, and envision the solutions that help us solve the safety challenges we face today—we imagine that each of these solutions addresses our risk, without causing additional, subsequent issues, such as adding to driver distraction. The key to making this type of solution our reality is the addition of artificial intelligence.
Intelligence is the glue that brings the value of each individual tool; mirrors, video, and sensors, together to form a comprehensive view of exactly what’s going on. This might come in the form of an alert that tells the driver where the problem is (for example—rear, right side of the bus) which could also be coupled with different alarms or spoken word, such as “child,” or “car.” Bringing intelligence into the safety mix adds clarity, and the ability to respond quickly and confidently.
Intelligence also reduces sensor over-detection and excessive false alarms. And just like the value of mirrors, video, and sensors being better when they are all used together, adding intelligence to the mix is better when that intelligence is not just focused on detecting, but also on developing reference. This approach to adding intelligence to safety equipment helps to identify what’s really important and helps to ignore what isn’t.
Adding Intelligence to the School Bus
As we are inundated with ads for intelligent personal vehicles on a daily basis, it might be easy to assume that adding intelligence to the school bus would be a snap. All of the hard work has been done. We just need to make the shoe fit.
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most artificial intelligence research and development has been focused on small personal vehicles; but large vehicles, such as school buses, are designed and behave differently.
Our expertise lies in fleet safety solutions across the broadest range of commercial vehicles: school and transit buses, rail and RV, truck and trailer, work truck, law enforcement and waste removal. We’ve found the accidents that each of these vehicles get into are different, depending on the mission or job role of each vehicle. And likewise, the risk posed to people from each vehicle is different. These vehicles operate differently. And when it comes to safety, one size does not fit all.
In the case of school buses, the majority of accidents and student injuries happen when a stationary vehicle begins moving away from a curb or a stop. This scenario is unique to the school bus, and as a result, requires a unique solution.
Let’s compare school and transit buses to illustrate the point: if a school bus has stopped and a group of students linger outside its door, you would want your on-board safety solutions to alert you to possible danger. You would want to be advised to remain stopped until you are certain no further risk is present. A transit bus operates the exact opposite. Alerting the driver to remain stopped because of people waiting at a bus stop would hamper your ability to provide transit services.
Again, we are talking about a roughly 25,000 lb. vehicle that is painted bright yellow, features amber and red flashing lights and an extended bright red stop sign—and children are still at risk. Have we done all we can to draw attention to the bus? Have we done all we can to grab the attention of passing motorists? Have we done all we can to give bus drivers a clear view around the bus perimeter? Maybe, maybe not. But a different approach to the problem might be the next step.
Approaching the Problem from a Different Angle
When we talk about the issues and risks around the bus—it seems the root cause is human attention or lack thereof. Human attention is inherently limited. And given our limitations, it’s easy to understand how a bus driver in the middle of heavy rain and reflecting light struggles to keep his/her eyes on children as they disembark and safely cross the street. That is all while maintaining focus on approaching traffic.
Likewise, we can’t always expect young children to have the attention span to keep their focus on the bus driver until they’ve safely crossed the street. Both scenarios pose several attention deficits.
Advancements in technology are paving the way to a day where we have complete control over every vehicle. But we aren’t there yet. Today, it’s reasonable to say we can’t really control the car, but we can approach the problem differently. Today, we can bring mirrors, video, sensors, and intelligence together to actively alert the child or the pedestrian. And this is a novel approach.
Safe Fleet’s Intelligent Perimeter Safety Solutions
Safe Fleet is working on several solutions that take a very different approach to solving these problems. Each relies on the combined strengths that mirrors, video, sensors and intelligence bring. Each actively engages with the driver and/or students and pedestrians when a warning or alert is issued. Each focuses on directing the person or persons at risk, rather than the longstanding approach of focusing on the external factors that contribute to the issue.
The first of these innovative solutions is nearing market availability in late 2018/early 2019.
- Around Vehicle Monitoring with Active Alerts
This solution monitors the entire perimeter of a school bus, making use of motion detection sensors to actively alert the driver of the possible hazard. The affected zone is displayed in an on-board monitor and is accompanied by an audible alert to spur action.
- Predictive Stop-Arm
This solution monitors approaching traffic and makes use of radar technology and artificial intelligence to analyze when a stop-arm violation is likely to happen. The school bus driver is notified with a visual and audible alarm, and affected students are warned it might not be safe to cross with a spoken word alert projected from external speakers.
- Advanced Danger Zone Protection
This solution focuses on the areas that present the most risk to students—the front, right-hand side and rear of the bus. Making use of predictive analytics and artificial intelligence, the solution detects people and their movement, including speed, direction, and trajectory, and predicts if risk is probable as it relates to the bus. The system then provides an audible alert to the bus driver.
We feel strongly that these innovative solutions, and the approach they take in actively notifying those at risk, will make great strides in increasing the safety of students, and help to drive down the sobering school bus-related student injury and death statistics.
Adding Even More Intelligence to Vehicles
It’s clear from recent press coverage on autonomous vehicle pilots, that we are on the path to having highly sophisticated, highly intelligent vehicles available to purchase. Regardless of where we are on this timeline and where this path will ultimately take us—safety needs to remain as a singular focus.
Today, we’re laying the groundwork for that future. The future in which we’ll eventually move beyond the vehicle towards the infrastructure itself. Our cars, buses, and safety systems might just be able to talk to each other. You may just see a school bus stop arm communicating to the cars around it, and those cars will be mandated to stop, regardless of what action a driver is taking.
At Safe Fleet, we’re taking the first steps toward that reality by moving past working with just the driver and engaging those at risk, and by adding intelligence to vehicles.
We continue to drive safety forward.