Making the Safest Vehicle Safer?

NTSB recommendations have the industry buzzing about additional safety equipment for school buses. 

A closed-track demonstration shows why electronic stability controls could be necessary to improve school bus safety.

On May 22, the National Transportation Safety Board held a meeting to review findings of its investigative teams studying the November 2016 Baltimore and Chattanooga school bus crashes, and to make recommendations for increased student safety going forward.

The recommendation that received the most national media attention was for standardized lap-shoulder seat belts nationwide, which echoed NTSB’s repeated calls for the past decade. NTSB stopped short of asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to initiate rulemaking to require the occupant restraint systems, which NTSB officials have previously told the industry is unlikely to happen. It did, however, recommend that all school buses be equipped with electronic stability control systems (ESC)—which it also first called on NHTSA to require nearly a decade ago—and crash avoidance systems, including automatic braking.

School buses were excluded from the heavy-duty truck and bus ESC rule published three years ago, because NHTSA at the time deemed the technology largely unnecessary for the common, short home-to-school routes. It also said the cost of ESC might reduce student ridership.

While many student transporters remain unconvinced about how these three technologies could improve school bus safety, a recent School Transportation News reader survey indicates that support is increasing.

The survey, administered last month to transportation directors, supervisors and fleet managers, asked which of the three recommended safety systems, if any, they planned on implementing. Half of the nearly 300 respondents said they were not planning to add anything. Nearly one-third said they planned to add lap-shoulder belts, almost one-quarter said they were considering collision avoidance and almost a fifth said ESC interested them.

Andrew Madura, director of transportation for Lake Region Schools in Maine, said he would like to add all three of the technologies, but pointed out that the district’s replacement cycle of one to two buses per year means it could take decades before the whole fleet would be equipped. In the meantime, he said the district would face the complicated issue of addressing parent inquiries about why their child’s school bus lacks those safety features, when they are present for other routes.

“There really needs to be a funding mechanism at the state, national and local level to replace these buses—to help us bridge that gap to get these done quicker,” he noted.

While Madura said the current state funding program is lacking, he added that he is excited for the opportunity presented by the Volkswagen settlement, and he has already submitted a letter of interest for 11 buses that would be eligible for replacement.

“They’re going to pay for 80 percent of the cost of the bus, so it would be a good time to get some of these extra things in,” he explained.

ESC is on the wish lists of both Dawson Independent School District in Texas and Sheridan School District in Arkansas. Aaron Hogue, supervisor of maintenance for Dawson ISD, said he values its usefulness in helping prevent rollover crashes. Rhonda Harris, transportation coordinator for Sheridan School District, predicted it would help drivers navigate the area’s rural roads, especially when they become slick with water or ice.

While three-point seat belts require driver and student training on use and evacuation, as well as monitoring to make sure they are actually used, ESC and collision avoidance are easier to implement, because they “take the human element out,” said Ryan Lyman, director of transportation for Lincoln County School District #2 in Wyoming. He said that he planned to start a conversation with state department of education representatives on including the technology in Wyoming’s strict school bus specifications.

College Station Independent School District in Texas uses bonds to replace buses and has a replacement cycle of 20-25 new buses every three years. Caleb Williams, the assistant director of transportation, said he is in favor of purchasing buses with ESC and collision avoidance systems, as long as their added costs don’t result in fewer bus purchases. He added that they could also help with concerns related to the driver demographic in the district.

“We are a college town, and so we do have a lot of college students who drive really fast, really aggressively,” he explained. “Anything that we can do to help our drivers out and keep our kids safer is something we will certainly look at and try to get.”

Manassas City Public Schools in Virginia will have collision avoidance technology on 15 percent of its fleet by the end of this summer. Transportation Director Joe Yankoviak said the feature has helped alert drivers who are distracted with bus controls and even curb some unsafe driving habits.

“It’s also very beneficial, because some drivers follow closer to the vehicle in front of them than they should, and you can tell them [not to] till you’re blue in the face. But if they’re annoyed by this device, it kind of forces them to back off,” he explained. “I’d say it’s been helpful to help change driving habits for the better.”

He said he doesn’t see the same need for ESC, since his buses travel at low speeds. The city maintains its roads well in the winter, and school is closed if weather gets too severe, he added.

Blue Bird offers an electronic stability program (ESP) from Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems on its Type C buses, and it was the first school bus manufacturer to do so, about six months before NHTSA finalized the rule. The Bendix system is also an available feature on the CE Series and RE Series from IC Bus.

Thomas Built Bus has offered SmartTrac electronic stability control from Meritor WABCO on its Type C buses since September 2015. Its Saf-T-Liner C2 is available with the BusWise suite of safety technology, which includes collision avoidance and a 360-degree camera.

The Lion Electric Company of Quebec does not currently offer ESC, but it said the feature is easily added, especially if it becomes mandatory on school buses. Collision avoidance technology is also not currently an option, as it would require changing the power steering. But Marie Bedard, the business relationship manager for Lion Electric, said the company “will offer this once the technology is available and the market is ready for it.”

“We’re seeing more and more vendors interested in having the technology available,” observed Frederick Andersky, director of government and industry affairs for Bendix. He said that fatal school bus crashes have driven communities and school districts to question what could have prevented the crash. This spurred manufacturers to develop and offer safety features that were previously available on other vehicles but not on school buses.

“Past performance doesn’t guarantee future performance, and just because you haven’t had a rollover, loss of control or collision, doesn’t mean that can’t happen in the future,” Andersky emphasized. “And with the higher number of distracted drivers out on the road and with school buses doing more duty than just the neighborhood pick-up and drop-off—like running the band from city A to city B on the freeways or the interstate—there’s no reason why these technologies shouldn’t be considered or even part of the package.”

The significance of this safety discussion was highlighted by the fact that it came on the heels of a May 17, 2018 school bus field trip crash that killed a teacher and student in New Jersey, where only two-point seat belts are mandatory.

On May 29, Rep. Josh Gottheimer and Rep. John F. Faso introduced H.R. 5984, which would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to update federal requirements to include lap-shoulder belts on all school buses. As of this writing, the bill had been referred to the House Subcommittee on Highways & Transit.

In Jan. 2018, New Jersey state Sen. Samuel Thompson introduced S233, which would update the seat belt requirement to three-point restraints. He has presented the same legislation several times before and the latest version is still in the Senate Education Committee. On June 4, four state representatives introduced the same legislation as A4110 in the state assembly, where it is pending in the Assembly Education Committee.