Child Detection in the Danger Zone

Nine out of 10 school districts in the U.S. and Canada are not currently using 360-degree camera systems to detect children at school bus stops.
Nine out of 10 school districts in the U.S. and Canada are not currently using 360-degree camera systems to detect children at school bus stops.

While new School Transportation News research indicates that nine out of 10 school districts in the U.S. and Canada are not currently using 360-degree camera systems to detect children at school bus stops, based on STN reader reports. The reasons why go beyond the expected answer of budgetary constraints and vehicle replacement cycles.

The need for the eventual, widespread adoption of sufficient exterior child-detection systems at bus stops seems especially urgent for younger students, who are more easily missed by drivers in blind spots. The National School Bus Loading & Unloading Zone Survey that was conducted by the Kansas State Department of Education, found that 73 percent of school bus stop fatalities over the past 50 years occurred to students who were 9 years of age and younger.

One concern that has been voiced in the industry about child detection systems is that they may generate over-alerts via false alarms. The systems also need to provide the context of what set off the alarm, when all the driver sees is often just an empty street and sidewalk. What the school bus industry doesn’t want to see, is the classic case of the blind man trying to determine the size of an elephant by only touching along his long, thin tail. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

Key Factors

After analyzing this month’s reader survey responses, it appears that cost is only one of the factors in the low adoption rate of 360-degree camera systems that are designed to remove blind spots. Instead, the industry has yet to reach the tipping point for the demand of such systems, apparently due in part to a relative lack of competition and lack of understanding of how the systems work.

In comparison to the consumer technology market, where thousands upon thousands of companies worldwide have made many types and sizes of products and solutions in recent decades, there are few companies that make the 360-degree camera systems for school buses. Additionally, few student transporters are saying, “I’ve got to buy one for my buses, too.”

Overwhelming product acceptance in the industry is probably at least a decade away. The goal of quickly shrinking the Danger Zone via wide-scale video and microwave systems will likely remain elusive for now. But options are still readily available for early adopters.

Several Primary Approaches

There are several basic child detection approaches that have become available within the past few years: 360-degree cameras that give the driver a bird’s-eye view of the bus perimeter; and student detection sensors that sound an alarm for the bus driver when it detects movement within 10 feet of the bus.

There are a small number of market leaders that STN has identified, which include (in alphabetical order):

  • 24/7 Security Inc.’s 1080p and 360-degree solution with 720p and IP cameras.
  • Collins Bus has an optional Brigadier rear-view and 360-degree camera system on a Ford Transit chassis.
  • Rosco Vision Systems Safe-T-Scope 360-degree Surround Camera System uses a standard LCD backup monitor or a Rosco MOR-Vision mirror/monitor. The system provides various views of the bus, using custom set triggers. The system can be triggered when the vehicle moves into reverse, has an open door, or activates the turn signals.
  • Rostra Precision Control detects obstacles by using microwave sensing technology and a visual display. The system alerts drivers to objects that are up to 12 feet away, or in blind spots behind, alongside or at the front of the school bus.
  • Safe Fleet’s Intelligent Perimeter Safety Solutions, which monitors the entire area around a school bus. It uses motion detection sensors to actively alert the driver to possible hazards. The area is displayed on an on-board video monitor and the system triggers driver action via an audible alert.
  • Seon inView 360 four-channel cameras that can be added to the Rosco Vision Systems Backup Monitor, a 360-degree camera.
  • Thomas Built Buses partners with Mito Corporation and CUB Group to offer the Perimeter View 360 camera package (PV360).
  • Transit Bus System Shield+ (a collaboration with Mobileye, which was purchased by Intel) can spot a collision course with a pedestrian, cyclist or vehicle, then notify the driver in time to stop the bus.

Other Companies Have Entered the Field

Last summer, Thomas Built Buses debuted the prototype of its new pedestrian detection technology at the STN EXPO Reno.

“Most accidents that involve a school bus actually happen outside the bus, when children run into the road, step too close to the bus, or even kneel down to get something that has fallen under the bus,” said Leslie Kilgore, VP of engineering for Thomas Built Buses. “As diligent as bus drivers may be, sometimes they just can’t see a child around certain areas of the outside of the bus.”

That’s the problem she said Thomas is hoping to solve. “We hope to avoid unnecessary pedestrian accidents in the front, back, and sides of our buses, even within blind spots. Working with the CUB Group and MITO Corporation, the technology is 90 percent there, and we are excited to show the industry this vital new safety feature,” she continued.

As part of the BusWise Technologies, Kilgore elaborated that the new pedestrian detection feature will be composed of LED ground lights on the cross-view mirrors, and multiple radar units on the 77GHz frequency band, that will be installed around Thomas buses.

“These higher frequency radars, which are used for autonomous vehicles and high-resolution meteorological observations,” Kilgore noted, allow for “more precise detection and measurement of a pedestrian or object within 10 feet of the front, back or side of the school bus. The entire traditional danger zone is visible. When a pedestrian is detected, the system will alert the driver on an in-cabin tablet, as well as through caution lights on the cross-view mirrors.”

Seon’s next product release will focus on the right-hand side of the bus, where students are at risk of being struck by the bus or caught in the bus loading doors as the driver pulls away from the curb. That latter problem happened most recently on April 15, when a 6-year-old girl in Wasatch County, Utah, was dragged for about 10 to 15 feet before the bus stopped. Luckily for her, she suffered only minor injuries.

But a 9-year-old Massachusetts student, Summer Steele, wasn’t as lucky in October 2016. Her bus driver later pleaded guilty to negligent motor vehicle homicide and was sentenced to one year in jail.

“Making use of advanced video analytics, Seon’s solution detects people and their movement within a definable right-hand danger zone area,” noted Jessica Rodwell, the company’s marketing communications manager. “If the system detects probable risk, visual warnings are displayed to warn the vehicle operator. The intent is to prevent a potential accident before it occurs.”

But of course, good quality solutions require time to research, develop, test and refine, before they can be released to the marketplace. A new Seon solution is currently in field trials and is expected to be released later this year.

That unit is part of a phased approach that is designed to address Abigail’s Law in New Jersey, which requires newly manufactured school buses to be equipped with radar or video sensors, to confirm the presence of objects in front of or behind the bus. “Our future plan is to enhance the solution, to enable detection of people on all sides of a vehicle, providing a full, comprehensive solution,” added Rodwell.

Seon’s perimeter safety solutions will be on display during a live safety technology demonstration at the STN EXPO Indianapolis next month.

Student Transporter Feedback

Still, the added cost of 360-systems remains a hurdle, as does confusion about how the technology operates. Cliff Shearouse, executive director of transportation services for Henry County Schools in McDonough, Georgia, explained he has yet to purchase the new technology. “Funds are still tight for my district, and these cameras are not considered a necessity in the big picture of things that are needed to run the transportation operation,” Shearouse told STN. “I don’t see us purchasing the 360-degree camera systems for a few years yet.”

Larry Thayer, transportation supervisor for Mill A School District 31 in Cook, Washington, said the cameras have yet to make a winning case. “For me, more cameras are more (of a) distraction,” he said.

Thayer notes, “I count kids coming and going, I know where they are. And the mirror system covers everything but the rear of the bus. If the drivers are doing due diligence, they are aware if anyone is near the bus before it starts moving.“

Thayer adds, “I honestly do not know how a 360-degree camera would work outside a bus. Did I miss something? Is this for inside to monitor children in the seat? I would agree to more cameras inside and even a 360-degree concept, but I don’t see how it would work outside.”

Bryan West, transportation director at North Clay CUSD #25 in Louisville, Illinois, said he is unsure if most districts are aware of the 360-degree camera’s capabilities. “I’m not sure I am,” he admitted.

He also acknowledged that a lack of budgetary dollars for new technology is an ever-present factor in any purchase. But if it can be proven that in the long run, “we are going to save lives or money with such technology, then it would ease the cost concern,” West added.

Benoit Bourgault, general manager of Student Transportation Services of Waterloo Region in Kitchener, Canada, said school bus contractors are one avenue that districts can use to implement 360-cameras. “In our last RFP, we promoted innovation. Specifically, we were encouraging alternative fuel to improve emissions. One proponent suggested using 360-degree vision to assist drivers with the safety of students. Part of their fleet purchase included propane buses or 360-degree vision,” he explained.

The reaction was notable, Bourgault commented, that while the district’s senior drivers expressed little initial interest in 360-degree cameras, the newer drivers were “more open. Yet the operators were reluctant to give new buses to rookies, while the tenured drivers were not given new buses,” he said.

Going forward, Bourgault said he thinks that his district and the industry, in general, needs to “continue to push for evolution. The school bus on the road today is essentially the same as what I rode 40 years ago, while my personal vehicle is a world apart,” he said.

West concluded that he prefers to implement technology after others have proven its viability. “I think this is a good practice that will often save time, money and anguish, for myself and the district,” he added. “However, I have been known to go it alone or be an early adopter of effective technology. For example, with my research and pressing, my district was the first in the State of Illinois to purchase the new LPI propane buses. We are still purchasing them after seven years of service.”

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the May 2019 issue of STN.