Safety, Security and Technology for Parents in School Transportation

10/07/2019  |  By Derek Graham
Security
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Years ago, my coworker had a child in middle school who rode the bus to and from school. In an era before cell phones were commonplace — especially for kids — she would anticipate the daily landline call from her son reporting that he had arrived home. Then, she would breathe a sigh of relief.

Now, as they say, there’s an app for that!

It’s just one of the ways that new technology is being used in school transportation.

How Today’s Parents Expect Communication

Parents of elementary-age children have grown up with technology. They are accustomed to online banking, digital shopping carts and receiving notifications dealing with those transactions on their smartphones. So, it is not surprising that they expect information from the school district on their smartphones too.

When considering a move, or actually moving to a new school district, parents look online for information about which school they are assigned to, based on their street address. The same need is there when preparing for their first child to begin school.

As each new school year starts up, they look to a smartphone app to find out where their child is supposed to catch the bus and at what time. Further, they expect to know, on a daily basis, when the bus is going to make the stop.

That technology is here.

GPS and Parent Notifications

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have been used by school districts for years now as an essential part of providing safe and efficient transportation. Maintenance personnel need to track buses for servicing breakdowns, conducting routine inspections and more. And GPS can document the exact location of a motorist that illegally passed a stopped school bus.

GPS is also a valuable tool in addressing customer service questions that arise on a routine basis. A phone call from a parent indicating that the bus never stopped can be quickly verified by the district using GPS data. It may be that the bus passed the stop, perhaps because there was a substitute driver.  Or it may be that the bus actually stopped, waited for two minutes, and the student never arrived at the stop. GPS documents all of that.

School districts can make GPS location data available to parents. Parents want — arguably, NEED — to know when the bus is coming, whether it is on time or maybe that it is running late. It helps them to gauge the appropriate time to leave the house to walk to the bus stop. The same holds true in the afternoon. In addition to added convenience before going to the bus stop in the morning, parents get peace of mind knowing that the bus arrived at school or made it to their bus stop in the afternoon.

Added Security

As parent bus tracking apps are becoming more mainstream each year, school districts are considering what’s next. Yes, it is helpful for the parent to know that the bus made it to their stop in the afternoon but did their child actually get off the bus? School districts are now enhancing their school transportation security by using student ridership programs. Essentially, a student is issued a card and will “swipe on” and “swipe off” the bus. Parent notification apps can be enhanced such that the parent not only receives a notification when the bus arrives at the stop, but also receives a notification that their specific child has swiped on or swiped off the bus.

This enhances security when the bus is being driven by a substitute driver. At each bus stop, the “sub driver” can be notified on a mobile data terminal (MDT) that the student is (or is not) authorized to board or exit at the designated stop. A student swipes on and a verification takes place to the driver, acknowledging that the student is, in fact, assigned to board or disembark at that bus stop.

Additional Benefits of the On-board MDT

The MDT can provide even more information to the bus driver. It can display a list of bus stops and even turn-by-turn directions to assist the driver in following the correct route. It also serves as a mobile time clock. After all, the school bus is the driver’s “office.” Information about maintenance issues, inspections, etc. can all be entered by the driver before departing on his or her route.

New Technology on the Bus

Most innovations for today’s school bus focus on the overall goal of providing safe transportation for students but not all are geared toward parents. School bus manufacturers recently began providing Electronic Stability Control (ESC) on large school buses to assist the bus driver in maneuvering through challenging road conditions. Electronics are being used to detect students or other pedestrians in the loading/unloading area immediately around the school bus. And, the industry reports development of systems that can actually predict when a vehicle is likely to illegally pass a stopped school bus, and trigger audible warnings to the bus driver or student passengers.

And inside the bus, more and more school buses are equipped with technology long considered standard in passenger cars, such as air conditioning and lap/shoulder seat belts.

Making the Safest Mode Even Safer

Long recognized as the safest means of transport to and from school, the yellow school bus looks to many just as it did decades ago. But the advancements inside, outside and around the bus are focused primarily on preserving, and even improving, that safety record. School district customers — parents and students — expect information, communication and technology commensurate with their experience throughout today’s connected society. And school districts are rising to the challenge.

Derek Graham is a former state director of pupil transportation in North Carolina. He is currently an industry consultant with clients that include Education Logistics (Edulog), a provider of computer routing systems and GPS applications.
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