According to a survey by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, 79,859 school bus drivers reported that 51,593 vehicles passed their buses illegally on a single day during the 2021-2022 school year, down from the pre-pandemic 95,319 vehicles that participated in 2018-2019 but still cited as “epidemic” levels.
Granted, the annual survey is voluntary, but an increase in the usage of stop-arm cameras and enhanced lighting technologies designed to thwart illegal passing could soon be supplemented by the latest National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration regulatory effort.
The proposed rule announced in late May and published to the Federal Register on June 12, would require automatic emergency braking on all light-duty vehicles that could add a layer of protection for not only students and transportation staff riding on school buses and the other motorists who are killed or injured each year in rear-end collisions with the yellow vehicles but also students crossing to or from school bus stops or simply waiting there.
NHTSA is also currently studying illegal passing of school buses and the technology used to thwart such activity, as required by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeks a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard to require automatic emergency braking (AEB), including pedestrian AEB (PAEB). An AEB system utilizes sensor technologies and sub-systems to detect when a vehicle is about to crash. If a driver has not already reacted by braking, the AEB system then automatically applies the vehicle brakes or applies more braking force if necessary. It aims to avoid the crash or reduce the severity of the crash if impact is inevitable.
If adopted as proposed, nearly all U.S. light vehicles will be required to have AEB technology three years after a final ruling would be published.
Intended to Reduce Numerous Crash Scenarios
The NPRM would require automatic emergency braking and pedestrian AEB systems on passenger cars and light trucks and buses (of less than 10,000 GVWR), aimed at reducing crashes associated with pedestrians and rear-end crashes. The 288-page document, which is open for public comment through Aug. 14, details the many safety problems it aims to curtail, as well as NHTSA data on AEB effectiveness, what lead to the agency’s decision to pursue the technology, the proposed implementation should this rule be adopted, the testing process used to substantiate the proposal, and an estimated timeline of the implementation.
“These systems can reduce both lead-vehicle, rear-end (lead vehicle AEB) and pedestrian crashes (PAEB),” NHTSA states in the NPRM. “Importantly, this proposal would require that systems are able to avoid pedestrian crashes in darkness testing conditions. AEB systems have reached a level of maturity such that they will be able to reduce the frequency and severity of crashes and are thus ready to be mandated on all new light vehicles.”
The AEB requirement could prevent numerous crash scenarios, including known school bus crossing incidents, which the National Highway Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is currently investigating. This includes a major incident that occurred when a Blue Bird school bus in Wisconsin was about to board a 13-year-old student. The School District of Reedsburg bus was stopped facing westbound on two-lane State Highway 23/33 the morning of May 12 as it prepared to receive 13-year-old student rider Evelyn Gurney. The buses red lights were flashing, and the stop arm was deployed. A Ford F-150 pickup truck traveling behind the bus failed to slow down and stop. The truck swerved to the right, hit the right rear side of the school bus, and then struck the student, who died at the scene.
Closing Loop on School Bus Crash Mitigation?
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) applauded another National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed rule announced last week in conjunction with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to require commercial vehicles with gross vehicle weight ratings over 10,000 pounds to also come equipped standard with automatic emergency braking.
“Decades of NTSB investigations have made clear that collision avoidance systems on heavy vehicles will save lives and are a critical piece of the safe system approach to road safety,” commented NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy on Friday. “Stability control systems are an important component for these collision avoidance systems and also help prevent loss of control and rollovers.”
If finalized, the regulation would extend Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 136, Electronic Stability Control (ESC) Systems on Heavy Vehicles, to all vehicles currently exempted, such as school buses.
However, most large school bus manufacturers offer the technology. ESC comes standard on all Blue Bird, IC Bus and Thomas Built Buses models. IC Bus adds collision mitigation controls such as AEB standard, while that technology is optional from the other manufacturers.
NHTSA notes in the NPRM that Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems—a supplier of ESC and collision avoidance mitigation technologies to several school bus OEMs—said in 2018 that ESC provides the necessary platform for more advanced driver assistance systems.
Public comments may be made until Aug. 14. Only two public comments were posted at this report, and both were supportive of NHTSA’s intentions. One comment read, “Vehicles have been allowed to get bigger and heavier and drivers are distracted so often that it is extremely dangerous to be outside of a vehicle near a street and dangerous if you are not in some enormous SUV on the streets as well,” an anonymous commenter writes. “The U.S. has terrible roads and [has] allowed vehicle makers to keep pushing big, expensive SUVs and trucks while increasing the number of deaths on the roads. Automatic braking is the bare minimum that could be done. Vehicles need crumple zone compatibility and pedestrian impact safety mandated. Weight and size limits should also be considered. Researchers had already quantified the danger of increasing weight over 20 years ago.”
However, the rulemaking was met with mixed sentiments on some news outlet comment boards. The technology “still needs refinement,” one of those comments reads, while another states, “This is a no-brainer for everyone.” Another: “AEB is great but it’s treating the symptom, not the cause,” and “all these mandated safety systems add cost and complexity to a car.”
Many late-model cars and trucks already come standard with AEB, but what NHTSA really hopes to move the needle on is pedestrian braking technology that is largely absent.
Ripe for Implementation with Perhaps a Few Tweaks
The rule would complement many existing efforts underway, including an ongoing collaboration between Audi and school bus manufacturers Blue Bird and IC Bus. Both projects are collaborating to leverage Volkswagen Group relationships and expand road-safety use cases of Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything, or V2X, technology. In part, the projects would provide real-time alerts to Audi drivers (currently tested on e-Tron vehicles) that they are approaching an active school bus stop. School bus manufacturer Thomas Built Buses said it is also aligned with the proposed rule.
“The company shares the same mission as NHTSA to enhance traffic safety and mitigate fatal crashes and serious injuries and looks forward to continued collaboration with the agency to review AEB technology and the upcoming regulation and test procedures that are being developed for the industry by NHTSA,” said a spokesperson for Thomas Built Buses.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) supports the proposed rule, stating it has pushed for the adoption of effective AEB systems for years through its test programs and have worked with automakers to make lower-speed, vehicle-to-vehicle systems standard on new models through a voluntary commitment. IIHS is referenced in the proposal document and its statistics are cited by NHTSA. NHTSA and the IIHS announced a commitment by 20 manufacturers representing more than 99 percent of the U.S. light vehicle market to equip low-speed AEB as a standard feature on nearly all new light vehicles not later than Sept. 1, 2022.
“Recently, we’ve expanded test programs to emphasize AEB systems that can effectively detect and respond to pedestrians,” said Joe Young, an IIHS spokesperson. “We launched a test program in 2019 to encourage automakers to equip more models with this technology. Studies of real-world data have consistently shown that pedestrian AEB systems are effective, cutting pedestrian crashes by more than a quarter. However, that same research has shown that systems do not perform well in the dark. That finding prompted us to launch a nighttime pedestrian AEB test recently. We’re confident that automakers will respond and continue to improve these systems.”
Related: Collision-Avoidance Among NTSB’s Most Wanted Safety Features, OEMS Weigh In
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“While this proposed rule is an important step towards more widespread adoption of AEB technology, regulation takes time,” he added. “In the meantime, IIHS will continue to raise the bar through our consumer ratings tests and encourage automakers to equip vehicles with effective technology that can prevent crashes and save lives.”
A May 31 speech delivered by Ann Carlson, chief counsel for the NHTSA, in Washington, D.C., highlighted the rationale and intent.
”According to NHTSA research, traffic crashes cost American society $340 billion in 2019. In just that one year, an estimated 36,500 people were killed, another 4.5 million were injured, and 23 million vehicles were damaged,” she said. “Traffic crashes devastate families and place a tremendous economic burden on society, and this rulemaking can help save lives and reduce injuries and damages.”
She later concluded by adding, “This is a great day for traffic safety and for everyone who uses the roads, no matter if they drive, walk, bike, ride or roll.”
Ryan Gray contributed to this report.