16 minute read

Transportation and School Busing

The School Bus, History of Pupil Transportation, Issues in Pupil Transportation

Pupil transportation, also known as school busing, has become one of the most important segments of the American educational system. It is subject to the same rules one might find in the classroom, including the dictates of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and a host of laws and rules governing disabled or special needs pupils.

Pupil transportation is big business. The number of school children riding school buses in the United States has risen dramatically, making school busing one of this nation's greatest service industries. American pupil transportation provides an estimated 10 billion rides to and from school annually.

In 1950, 7 million children were transported in 115,000 school buses. Fifty years later, 448,307 school buses transported 22,675,116 children more than 3,788,427,941 miles to and from public schools. Many of these were pupils with special needs. It is not known how many nonpublic school children are transported or how many school buses are used to transport them.

Public school transportation costs approximately $500 per year per pupil. Only Pennsylvania transports all school children at state expense. The fifty states spent $11,746,576,005 for the 1999–2000 school year, which included expenditures for transportation and capital outlay to purchase new or replacement school buses.

According to a national annual survey done through the state directors of pupil transportation of each state, twenty-two children were killed in school bus loading or unloading accidents during the 1999–2000 school year, whereas eighteen were killed in the 1997–1998 school year. The average annual number of pupils killed in school bus–related accidents during the 1990s is 20.4. The highest toll was during the 1993–1994 school year when thirty-two pupils were killed and the lowest was ten in 1997–1998. More than half of the fatal accidents occurred as pupils were exiting the bus in the afternoon, while approximately one-quarter of the accidents took place in the morning as pupils were waiting for the school bus. As one might expect, most of the victims were elementary school children. Only two of the victims were over the age of twelve. Eleven children were struck by their own bus and another eleven were struck by passing vehicles.

The School Bus

The school bus remains the safest form of surface transportation in the United States. It is far safer than the automobile, truck, public bus, or train. School buses are designed and manufactured specifically for the safety and protection of pupil passengers. Manufacturers must conform to a host of federal standards and certify that each school bus meets all federal and state standards.

The school bus is made up of a straight-body truck chassis with a school bus body mounted on two I-beams. Each area of the school bus body is constructed of a skeletal system beneath the finish and trim elements. The framing elements are heavygauge steel collision beams covered by heavy-gauge steel plates. Emergency personnel have to be specially trained in extrication due to this skeletal framework and the safety cushion built around the pupils.

Safety features. School buses are constructed using the concept of compartmentalization, which provides a passive restraint system in lieu of seat belts. The passengers are seated higher off the ground so that average-sized opposing vehicles are beneath the pupils' feet. The four-inch cushioned seats and seat backs afford the passenger a padded compartment in case of collision. The seats are closer together than in most vehicles to further create a compartmentalized safety zone. The aisles are twelve inches apart. There are no windshields or door close to the riders to offer paths of ejection from the bus. The passenger windows are placed higher than passenger vehicles. Elementary pupils are housed three to a seat while secondary pupils sit two to a seat. This crowding affords an extra measure of safety because the pupils cannot move far from their seat.

In the case of emergency, evacuation may be through the front service door, the rear emergency door, side emergency-operation windows, or roof hatches designed to offer ventilation or fully open as escape routes. In addition, the front windshield may be kicked out to provide another escape route. Escape is also possible through all side windows, which open eleven inches vertically by twenty-two inches in width. Students are trained through school bus evacuation drills to know what to do in case of an emergency. Emergency evacuation drills are held regularly and include what to do after exiting the school bus or in the event of the driver becoming disabled. Emergency evacuation preparation sessions are also conducted with students with disabilities and wheelchair-bound students.

Federal requirements regulate new vehicles that carry eleven or more people that are sold for transporting students to or from school or school-related events. These vehicles are required to meet all federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) for school buses. They must have stop arms, as regular buses do, along with many other safety features that exceed those of other passenger vehicles.

The success of the pupil transportation program is more dependent on the professional performance by the school bus driver than any other factor in program service. The welfare of every child is directly related to the skills, attitudes, and decisions of the driver.

History of Pupil Transportation

In 1869 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed the first legislation in the United States allowing the use of public funds for transporting school children. By 1919, with the passage of legislation in Delaware and Wyoming, forty-eight states had enacted similar laws. The primary reasons that states passed such legislation appear to be state-mandated, compulsory school attendance and the consolidation of public schools.

The standard means of transporting children to and from school in the nineteenth century was the school wagon, a modified farm wagon converted to carry pupils from the rural areas to the consolidated schools. By World War I motorized trucks began to replace the farm wagons and soon wooden bodies replaced the canvas tarpaulins that covered the farm wagons. Steel bodies emerged to replace the wooden bodies in the 1920s, and the basic concept of the modern school bus had begun to take shape.

With the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act of 1966, the federal government was authorized to issue regulations and standards to improve the safety of all motor vehicles manufactured in the United States. As of 2001, thirty-three Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that apply to school buses had been issued. Additions and changes to these standards in 1977 substantially upgraded the safety characteristics, particularly the crashworthiness, of school buses manufactured after April 1,1977.

The newer the school bus, the safer it is. The watershed year for school bus safety was 1977, when requirements for most of the important safety features were put into place. Tragically, it took a fatal school bus accident to accomplish a goal of further safety. As a result of a major accident in Carrollton, Kentucky, in 1988, safety features were studied and later added to the FMVS standards. School buses manufactured after 1992 have even more critical safety equipment such as additional emergency exits, better mirrors for the driver to be able to see around the bus, and swing-out stop arms to alert motorists that children are getting on or off the bus.

Issues in Pupil Transportation

Most issues in pupil transportation cannot be resolved without substantial increases in expenditures. Demands from the public for expanded programs, door-to-door services, and requests for increases in salaries for bus drivers greatly impact budgets. The elimination of on-board disciplinary problems and a reduction in the rate of turnover of school bus drivers tend to be the major factors affected by budgets. Spending tax dollars wisely in the area of pupil transportation continues to be one of the greatest concerns of school administrators.

Ridership. More than 5,000 children under the age of nineteen are killed each year as passengers in motor vehicles other than school buses. More than 800 school-aged children are killed yearly in passenger cars or other private vehicles during normal school hours. It is likely that many of these children were on their way to or from school or a school-related activity. By comparison, an average of eleven children die each year while they are school bus passengers.

Education opportunities for children with disabilities have increased over the years. Transporting children with disabilities to receive education has evolved as well. The passage of the Federal Handicapped Act, Public Law 94-142, and Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act changed the way schools provide education-related transportation for children with disabilities. Specialized technical and safety equipment have improved greatly to provide safe travel to and from school for students with special transportation needs.

Compartmentalization as a safety feature. In today's school buses compartmentalization is used instead of lap belts to provide an extremely high level of crash protection for student passengers, considering all the types of crashes involving school buses. There are no aggregate statistical data to suggest that a safety problem exists in large school buses that the installation of lap belts would solve. In fact, there is growing concern among safety professionals around the world over the use of lap belts as a form of passenger restraint for young or small children. In August 1998 at a public hearing held by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), five international experts in the field of motor vehicle occupant crash protection expressed their concern about the appropriateness of lap belts in providing crash protection to small children. The unanimous opinion was that lap belts were not a good means of providing crash protection to small children because small children's bone structure, particularly in the area of the hips, is still developing.

An October 1998 study by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine concluded that children restrained in three-point belts exhibit a similar pattern of injury to those in two-point belts; however, three-point belts appear to be effective for the lumbar spine. The report noted that "seat belt syndrome," which is associated with the use of two-point belts, can include bruising of the abdominal wall, fracture of the lumbar spine, and internal abdominal injuries.

At the outset of the twenty-first century, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting an extensive research program to consider alternative methods of potentially improving federal school bus passenger crash protection requirements. The NHTSA maintains the organizations' position that compartmentalization has proven to be an excellent form of school bus passenger crash protection, but believes it is important to develop the necessary data and science to review and evaluate potential improvements in passenger crash protection for the next generation of school buses.

Pupil discipline. Pupil discipline is probably the most serious issue in pupil transportation. If the riders are misbehaving it takes the driver's attention away from the driving responsibilities. The school bus is considered to be an extension of the classroom, as far as rules and regulations are concerned. While teachers normally have twenty-eight to thirty-two pupils in their class, facing them, school bus drivers have up to eighty-one pupils on a school bus, all sitting behind the driver, who has only an interior rear view mirror to monitor the pupils. Only school buses designated for special needs have aides on board to assist the driver in off-loading pupils.

Drivers must receive the most up-to-date training in pupil discipline methodology in order to provide both safe transportation and a safe environment for all riders. This issue requires serious training for both the drivers and the pupil riders, as well as effective policies to deal with problems. Most offenses are referred to the school administration for action. If riders have come to expect that the school administration will not take action in response to infractions, they are more apt to misbehave.

Methods for minimizing on-board discipline problems include adding personnel or technological means for monitoring behavior, maintaining clear guidelines and consequences for inappropriate activity, and upgrading student education concerning bus behavior. Parent support is also important.

School bus monitors offer a means of altering behavior to reduce discipline problems but cost is a major objection. Video cameras can help promote safe bus behavior, but critics are concerned about the potential for invading student privacy. However, there is no such thing as privacy aboard the school bus except for personal belongings. School bus video cameras are not directed at any person or group but record all that goes on in the school bus.

The use of video cameras mounted inside the bus must be authorized by the state or local boards of education. Prior warning to pupils and parents that video cameras are authorized and in use should be made in writing. A video camera policy should be developed and use of the film should be very limited. School transportation administrators should review tapes when there has been a discipline complaint. They should also review tapes from each school bus on a periodic basis to see if there are problems on that school bus which are not being reported.

Because the video camera and its mounting devices are expensive, most school districts will install the mounting boxes on every school bus and provide one video camera for every ten or so buses. The cameras are mounted in a box with a one-way mirror so that the camera can videotape outward but no one can see through the glass window to see if there is a camera on board the school bus that day. When complaints come in about a particular bus or driver, use of the camera can allay concerns or capture the problems on videotape. The videotape also lets the supervisor know what the driver is doing, although normally the driver is not in direct view while seated in the driver's seat.

Student education is needed as well. It has been estimated that enhanced pupil education programs could be conducted at an additional cost of about one dollar per student per year. Much of the present pupil training relates to loading and unloading the school bus, crossing streets safely, and using emergency exits in case of an accident. Additional education and awareness about appropriate bus behavior could help reduce disciplinary problems.

Suspension of bus riding privileges for rule offenders for one to three days is a common punishment that can act as a deterrent. Parents usually must provide transportation during this time period, because pupils are generally not also suspended from school for bus-related disciplinary problems. As in all aspects of a child's education, parent support is vital in promoting appropriate bus riding behavior.

Driver recruitment and retention. The old adage in the school transportation industry goes, "When the economy is bad, we have all of the school bus drivers we need; however, when the economy is good, we cannot get enough drivers." School bus driving is normally a part-time job. Drivers pick the pupils up in the morning and take them to school, then pick them up at school in the afternoon and take them home. In most cases the job takes no more than one to two hours in the morning and one to two hours in the afternoon.

In the past there was a ready reserve of potential drivers among stay-at-home mothers who would take such a job because the hours were short. They would be at work when their children were in or on their way to school, and they would be off work the same days as their children were out of school, including summers. With fewer stay-at-home mothers, the pool of available drivers has been reduced, even during economic downturns.

Transportation officials now have to be creative, offering incentives and more pay, or creating more employment hours. One way to do this is to have the school utilize the hours between morning and afternoon bus trips by employing these drivers as classroom aides, custodians, groundskeepers, and cafeteria workers.

Retaining drivers is another problem. School transportation departments train their drivers to operate a school bus. Drivers obtain commercial drivers licenses with associated endorsements and through on-the-road training they develop experience. Once school bus drivers have this combination of road experience and commercial license endorsements, they are often recruited by the trucking industry, which benefits from having trained and licensed drivers. Commercial transportation jobs offer full-time employment and a higher rate of pay. To combat this draining of trained drivers, the pupil transportation industry has been lobbying for a school bus–specific commercial driver's license. Several states have adopted this measure but the federal government has not yet endorsed the concept.

Driver training and qualification. The screening and training of drivers is another issue for the school transportation industry. The minimum age for school bus drivers in most states is eighteen, although some states set the minimum at nineteen or twenty-one. Driver training ranges from eight hours of classroom time to forty hours in the classroom as a minimum training requirement. There is also on the-road training and qualification under the tutelage of a driver trainer for an additional eight to twelve hours. Some states require in-service training on a yearly basis. All states check driving history and require annual or semiannual physical examinations. Thirty-nine states require fingerprinting and submission of state and federal criminal history background checks. All states interview prospective drivers in the selection process.

To ensure uniform safety of students in all fifty states, industry watchers believe there should be mandatory minimum training standards and qualifications in the United States plus yearly in-service training. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that school bus safety instruction be provided to children, as well, on at least a semiannual basis.

School planning design. Finally, the issue of school grounds design is of concern to school transportation professionals. When school layouts are designed, the school bus is many times a forgotten or add-on issue. The safety of school children is at stake, and school bus drivers and transportation officials have valuable perspectives on how to increase safety in the vicinity of school buses.

When designing schools, care should be taken to design loading and unloading areas on school grounds that safely allow pupils to board or exit the school bus. This area must be free from conflict with other vehicles and non-bus riders. The drivers must have adequate space designed for entering and exiting the school bus area without backing up their vehicles. Separate locations must be provided for parent pick-up zones and other parking facilities. Transportation officials should be included in the site planning of new schools, and they can also offer assistance in upgrading existing sites for increased safety.



ALLEN, KEITH. 1976. Guidebook for School Transportation Supervisors. Mt. Pleasant: Central Michigan University/American Automobile Association.

ASSOCIATION OF SCHOOL BUSINESS OFFICIALS. 1987. Issues in Pupil Transportation. Reston, VA: Association of School Business Officials.

MILLER, ANTHONY R. 2001. Pupil Transportation Management, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Ramsburg and Roth.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF STATE DIRECTORS of PUPIL TRANSPORTATION SERVICES. 1994. Emergency and Rescue Procedures: A Guideline Manual for School Bus Involvement. Dover, DE: National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF STATE DIRECTORS of PUPIL TRANSPORTATION SERVICES. 1999. Position Paper: Passenger Crash Protection in School Buses. Dover, DE: National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMINISTRATION. 1997. School Bus Safety: Safe Passage for America's Children. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD. 1999. Highway Special Investigation Report: Bus Crash-worthiness Issues. Washington, DC: National Technical Information Service.

SCHOOL BUS FLEET MAGAZINE. 2001. School Bus Fleet 2001 Fact Book. Torrance, CA: Bobit.

THE THIRTEENTH NATIONAL CONFERENCE on SCHOOL TRANSPORTATION. 2000. National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures. Warrensburg, MO: Central Missouri State University Safety Center.

TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH BOARD OF THE NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL. 1989. Special Report 222: Improving School Bus Safety. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia