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Smart Choices

What happens on the school bus stays on the school bus? That may have been true in the past, but the advent of onboard cameras has been a game changer. While not long ago, video systems fell into the “nice to have” category rather than an essential part of school bus operations, that’s no longer the case.

With the recent passage of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, even more developments with external cameras seem likely. The legislation stipulates that the U.S. Department of Transportation will study school bus loading safety tech, with pedestrian detection a part of that focus.

At Owego Apalachin Central School District in New York, the potential to enhance safety is the paramount benefit of video systems, according to Tony Quaranta, director of transportation. The district’s 30-plus buses are equipped with digital cameras from 247 Security with multiple cameras inside each bus, on the service door, and a dash cam looking out the front windshield. With the safety of riders depending on students behaving on the bus and not distracting the driver, cameras can be used to see what is happening between students, resolve he-said-she-said issues and help the driver manage the bus to avoid distractions.

“In my opinion, more drivers should watch the video of their bus more frequently,” Quaranta said. “I think they would be surprised as to what happens on the bus between the seats and how much they miss, even though they may think they’re on top of their student management.”

That perspective has been recognized by providers such as Netradyne, explained Barrett Young, senior vice president of marketing and fleet business for the company.

“We’ve analyzed situations where kids fight on a bus, throw objects at the driver, or the driver faces some type of accusation,” he said. “With video evidence of these situations, operators can address issues immediately, eliminating ambiguity and a tedious review process.”

Quaranta added that cameras can also support an emphasis on safety when used for training purposes, both with review of loading and unloading procedures and dealing with student behavior. “By reviewing the video in a non-threatening way, you can teach drivers how to better do their jobs and offer constructive suggestions on how to teach children what is expected,” he said.

Along with the performance of the equipment itself, Quaranta said he has been pleased with a service plan from a local dealer that includes inspection of each bus cameras three times a year. In the process, any problems are repaired or the cameras are replaced under warranty. “Since these cameras get more and more sophisticated each year and I am far from a tech person, I couldn’t pass this up,” he said. “Whenever a principal or driver needs to see bus video, we are almost 100 percent guaranteed that the video will be there and be of good quality.”

He added that whenever something is not working properly, usually the tech has the parts at hand and the camera is back online right away.

Overall improvements in camera quality also continue to impress. For example, the move to high definition has been a key development for Warsaw Community Schools in Warsaw, Indianaw, noted John Ryan, shop manager. The system’s fleet of 73 buses and eight mini buses is equipped with cameras from Seon, a Safe Fleet company.

“We have stepped up to high-def cameras in an eight camera configuration, mainly to see between the seats instead of over the seats due to the height adjustments of [FMVSS 222],” he said.

In addition, he said he likes the microphones included in latest internal cameras that allow for better hearing of student conversations. Buses are also equipped with stop-arm and forward-facing dash cameras.

When upgrading equipment, Ryan said he has learned to avoid mixing and matching units from different manufacturers. “We’ve found in the past that multiple camera systems are a pain,” he explained. “And the size of the fleet with cameras installed makes it difficult to change companies.”

The range of applications for video technology has also expanded, said Lori Jetha, vice president of marketing for Safe Fleet. She noted that while districts commonly rely on video footage to investigate complaints or support accident reconstruction, other use cases are expanding and evolving. Video evidence can support driver training, student load counting, crisis management and historical or real-time bus location through GPS.

The capacity for growth is another consideration. “The school transportation market has continued to demand ever-increasing camera coverage to ensure full visibility on all areas of the bus,” said Clint Bryer, director of sales for student transportation at Safety Vision.

He pointed out that seven to nine years ago, fewer than four camera positions in a bus was common. That number increased to six to eight cameras over the last four years. Now, school districts are using up to 12 cameras for complete interior and exterior coverage. At the same time, the use of stop-arm cameras has been a growing imperative, gaining support from groups as varied as school administrators, community groups and state legislators.

“We want the system to be able to grow with our district needs,” noted Ken Martinez, transportation man-ager for Utah’s Salt Lake City School District. That has worked well with the district’s 100 buses, all of which are equipped with video systems from 247Security.

“The systems meet our needs and keep getting better all the time with new and upgraded technology,” Martinez added.

Going forward, continuing advances in artificial intelligence may soon factor into every district’s planning.

“There shouldn’t be a question of do you need a video safety system or not,” Netradyne’s Young said. “What needs evaluation is how a video safety system performs in proactively reducing incidents on the road and inside the vehicle.”

To that end, he advocates the use of real-time alerts and analytics to open the possibility of addressing risk head-on and reducing the chance of incidents from happening at all. Examples include his company’s Driveri solution as well as the Saf-T-Zone pedestrian detection system from Thomas Built Buses.

Careful Selection:
When selecting equipment, Jetha at Safe Fleet recommends starting with a formal video policy. “The policy should cover who can access video, for what purpose, and how long video is kept as evidence,” she said. “A pilot project can help you evaluate performance and ease of use in your specific environment.”

Asking the right questions can also reveal much about potential partners and help in getting the best value. This includes watching out for short equipment lifespans, software that is not backward compatible, and lack of support for previous hardware generations.

In considering video equipment, security needs should not be overlooked. “Due diligence on country of manufacture, software development, intellectual property ownership, and cloud and software security measures should be a focus,” Jetha said, adding that she also advises involving IT teams in evaluating systems. “They can be a valuable resource, not just on software and security but product evaluation, specifications and design as well.”

Looking beyond upfront costs is also wise, Bryer at Safety Vision noted, with an estimate of total cost of ownership including costs for service and support after the sale. He recommends piloting the video systems on buses to gain experience with the product, the sales representative, and the company.

“Ask for and contact references to confirm that they’re satisfied with the vendor and are still getting the same level of support long after the sale,” he added. “Research the vendor to determine if they are privately or publicly held, and if they have the financial stability and commitment to the industry to be around when you need them.”

While the experiences of others can be helpful, individual circumstances should take precedent.“Choose what’s best for you,” Salt Lake City’s Martinez said. “Just because we may need one thing doesn’t mean you need it too. Everyone’s needs are different, and we all have different budgets.”

For best results, Quaranta suggests assigning staff to stay on top of the various applications possible with contemporary equipment. “The technology has so much to offer but if nobody is taking the time to explore it or think outside the box with it, then it just becomes a tool to discipline students,” he said. “And yet it can do so much more.”

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

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