The wheels on Kentucky school buses are still going round and round, but that’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed as buses become more high-tech and efficient.
There are nearly 10,000 public school buses in Kentucky and many of those now have GPS, camera systems and improved lighting, just to name a few modern upgrades.
“Buses have evolved so much,” said James Stewart, director of transportation for Oldham County Schools. “Most of it is driven toward what’s best for kids, safety aspect of it. Occasionally there are add-ons that do improve efficiencies or things that are mandated by government, like the emissions.”
Laurel County Schools bus driver Tim Perry transports students
from North Laurel High School to the district’s Center for Innovation.
Dave Mangum, who oversees buses for the Kentucky Department of Education, said emission reduction has been the biggest change with buses, noting it now takes about 100 buses to produce the same amount of pollution that one 1994 model bus produced.
“That cost us lots of money to accomplish, about $20,000 worth of equipment there (per bus),” Mangum said. “That’s not exciting but it’s important to us.”
Mangum said Kentucky’s buses are very modern compared with those in most states. There are some features that are required and others that are district options.
For example, Stewart said Oldham County opted to add air disc brakes to the six newest buses in its fleet, because they’re more efficient, stop better and have less maintenance.
“It’s a minimal cost because we know we’re going to gain, one, student safety (with) better driver control, but we will also get that money back over the life cycle in our maintenance costs,” said Stewart, who is on the safety subcommittee for the state’s bus mechanical specifications committee.
He also noted that Kentucky was the first state to require anti-lock brakes in 1996, something the federal government didn’t mandate until 1998 “so we were way ahead of it.”
“That cost some money but there’s no telling what it has saved as far as student safety and possible crashes that may not have hurt anybody but would’ve cost a lot of money and a lot of damage,” Stewart said. “So most of it is driven toward pay up front a little bit for those things to kind of be proactive. Obviously some of them are reactive.”
Among the changes that were reactive were protection cages around fuel tanks and emergency door exits.
“A lot of states simply use the federal minimum regulations to build a school bus,” Stewart said. Mangum said Kentucky buses have twice as many emergency exits than required by federal law. He also notes that nearly all buses in the state have automatic transmissions, with only 141 manuals remaining.
Buses now have LED lights on them “because they’re more visible and they’re less likely to blow a bulb, which means less down time,” Mangum said. Stripes on the sides of buses also increase visibility.
Laurel County is testing a student-detections system on one of its buses for the state. The system has nine sensors around the bus exterior and alerts the driver of any movement in one of the zones.
“As long as there’s something in that detectable path, you’re going to get that red flash,” said Rob Hale, the district’s vehicle maintenance manager. He added that the district trains children to stay 12 feet away from the bus, “but children are children.”
Laurel County district mechanics recently installed $23.95 GPS units on all of its buses, enabling transportation officials to know where each bus is and what time it made each stop.
For example, if a parent calls the transportation office and says the bus didn’t show up to pick up the student, the district will know if the bus was there or not.
“Before we had this we would’ve had to call the bus driver and say, ‘Did you stop?’ And they’ll say, ‘Yes.’ It’s like our word against their word. But this way we’ve been able to pinpoint it,” said Steve Petro, the district’s transportation secretary.
Laurel’s Director of Transportation Bob Myers said the GPS will help with fuel costs by monitoring the driver’s route.
The district’s fleet also has upgraded radios and P.A. systems.
Lisa Monday, a 16-year bus driver, said the speaker system helps because she can get a child’s attention with it instead of yelling.
She also likes the modern push button controls and the advancements in how doors are opened. “When I did start (as a driver), we had to open and close the door and it would wear you out,” she said.
The buses also have more mirrors, including a dog-eared mirror that “allows you to see every area of the bus. You can see that they’re walking in front of you, that they’re walking to their house. The mirrors are major,” she said.
Buses now have what is referred to as a “no child left behind” button in the back of the bus that a driver has to push before he or she can take the key out of the ignition. “That’s to force the driver to check for sleeping kids every time he gets off the bus,” Mangum said.
Buses can be equipped with camera systems that allow the district to monitor behavior on the bus. “That is very important because it is not uncommon for things to occur on a bus that the bus driver can’t see, they’re not aware of,” Stewart said. “It gives the principals an added tool because they’re dealing with student discipline issues.”
The cameras can be used to record motorists who pass illegally while the bus stop arm is out. “It’s no longer our bus driver’s word against the other motorist,” Stewart said.
Some buses also have back-up cameras that display on the driver’s mirror anytime the bus is in reverse.
Mirrors can now be controlled with remote control to allow drivers more control over what they’re seeing.
As more advancements come along, one thing will always remain the same.
“There’s going to be 440,000 kids standing on the side of the road and we’re going to pick up every one of them,” Mangum said.
Board View: Investing in buses is “money well spent”
Breathitt County school board member George Johnson, a former school bus driver, mechanic and driver trainer for the district, said today’s buses are a lot safer and more efficient, and that investing in buses “is money well spent.”
Johnson said when he started as a school bus driver in 1978 the buses had gas engines and were standard shift. Back then, he said, buses only got 3 miles per gallon.
He said the newer buses drive better. “Something about them, you couldn’t tell the bumps in the road or anything. They rode just like Cadillacs.”
Sometimes it’s a hard decision, he said, to decide to spend the money to replace a bus, but “you get so many miles, you start having a lot of problems out of them.”
Johnson said many buses in his district average 50-70 miles a day.
“It pays to have things that will operate,” he said.