The Yellow School Bus and Safety

04/01/2012  |  Derek Graham
Student Safety

The Big Yellow School Bus

The Big Yellow School Bus — it’s an icon of our country’s education system. But did you ever wonder why? Among the reading and writing, the math and the tests, the teachers and pencils and whiteboards — when people want to depict our public schools, why do they so often turn to the yellow school bus to represent the entire system? It may be as simple as the visual — the large yellow mass with flashing lights. But behind that, a lot more contributes to that iconic value.

One of the keys to a successful free public education system is ensuring that students can access that system. And once we assume the responsibility for that access, we have an obligation to keep those children safe. And if that safe means of access saves fuel and energy, then all the better! But as long as one child could be endangered in this system of transport, then we all have a job to do — and it requires continued vigilance.

Access to Education

School districts across the country are working to improve student outcomes in the classroom through a variety of program refinements and modifications, but one thing remains true. Students must be PRESENT for results to be seen. Virtual schools and online learning notwithstanding, most students must be in a classroom to achieve the educational goals that have been established for them. Many parents have work schedules or other circumstances that make it impossible for them to get their children back and forth to school without assistance. Older students, if left to their own devices, may opt not to attend school if their transportation options are too complicated or limited in some way. Enter the yellow bus. Nationally over 50 percent of students are transported to or from school by school bus. Reason number one that the school bus is an educational icon: it allows students to access our system of public education.

The Safest Way to Get to School

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that students are about 50 times more likely to arrive at school alive if they take the bus than if they drive themselves or ride with friends. NHTSA tracks safety in all modes of transportation and, for years, has recognized school bus transportation as the safest way for students to get to and from school.

The sheer mass and color of the school bus — that contribute the instant recognition of this unique vehicle — are there for one reason: to protect student passengers. There are federal crash standards — in addition to the stop sign, lighting and mirror requirements — that are required of school buses and no other vehicle. Very simply, the cargo is more valuable that any other. Reason number two that the school bus is an educational icon: for decades it has offered protection for its student passengers and has a safety record second to none. It has achieved reason number one — access to education — without compromising the safety of children!

Helps the Environment

Did you ever stop to realize that the school bus helps reduce emissions and oil consumption in the community? Interestingly enough, one image of the school bus that some people have is the black smoke puffing from the tailpipe. Part of that visual is simply a symptom of the diesel engine. But did you know that diesel engine standards in effect beginning in 2010 have decreased pollutants by over 98 percent? And it may come as no surprise that school buses (which are primarily diesel-powered) do not report a stellar MPG when compared to passenger cars. But if you compare the amount of diesel fuel expended to transport students on school buses compared with the comparable amount of (primarily) gasoline that would be needed to transport those same students in their parents’ vehicles, the results are amazing.

In North Carolina, for example, the savings amounts to 67 million gallons of fuel per year — $245 million at February 2012 price levels. Nationally, that translates to over 2.3 billion gallons and over $8 billion!! So, while people may not realize that this savings and convenience is a reason that the yellow school bus is an icon of the educational system, it is a very real benefit.

Reason number three is that school bus transportation is good for the environment and a tremendous benefit to families.

Doing Our Part

Every motorist must be aware of children and school buses each and every day. Even though the transport of students to and from school by school bus offers them the highest level of highway safety possible and we understand that the school bus is an integral part of our country’s educational system, we have to look objectively at anything that can compromise that system. The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation (NASDPTS) believes that the biggest threat to student safety happens not ON the bus, but OUTSIDE the school bus. And the biggest threat OUTSIDE the bus is that of motorists passing stopped school buses.

Stop for a Stopped School Bus

While the laws vary from state to state, one thing is constant — motorists must exercise caution when school buses are loading and unloading children. On most roads in most states cars must stop in both directions when a school bus is stopped with lights flashing and stop sign extended.

In the November 2010 NASDPTS passed a resolution encouraging states to participate in the first annual NATIONAL STOP ARM VIOLATION SURVEY. During the spring of 2011, 28 states participated in this survey and the results were staggering. Almost 112,000 bus drivers reported 37,756 total stop arm passing incidents, often involving several cars in each incident. And that’s just in a single day!

In North Carolina violations have been counted each year since 1998 with multiple initiatives along the way to improve student safety. State law was changed in 2009 to specifically allow video evidence to be used in the prosecution of stop arm violations. This was one of a series of law changes in the past decade aimed at protecting children from motorists who pay no attention to a stopped school bus.

A sequence of still photos taken from a video in Wake County that resulted in 
a driver being charged and convicted of passing a stopped school bus.

Stop Arm Cameras in North Carolina

In response to the new video evidence law, the Department of Public Instruction partnered with the NC Governor’s Highway Safety Program to purchase seven high-resolution camera systems to put on the outside of school buses in various regions of the state. Each camera system captures the view looking forward, looking backward and looking directly into the car of the motorist passing a stopped school bus. School districts in Rowan, Iredell, Wake, Carteret and Stokes counties now have a school bus or two equipped with this new technology.

According to Judy Burris, Transportation Director for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, the interface indicates when the lights come on, when the stop sign is activated, the speed of the bus and even the GPS location of the bus. In the photo labeled “Figure 1,” she explains the impact: “The driver nearest the stop sign was charged with passing a stopped school bus. In addition, the two drivers behind that front car were also charged by law enforcement, based on this video evidence.” On a recent day in court, Ms. Burris witnessed two guilty pleas once the defense attorneys saw the video of the offense with their own eyes!

Our goal with this demonstration project is not just to increase convictions, but to increase public awareness. Each time a motorist passes a school bus while it is stopped to load or unload students — that’s a situation that puts a child in danger. When we see a school bus — particularly with lights flashing — let’s develop that reflex that causes us, as motorists, to exercise extreme caution and STOP for the school bus.

Only then can the big yellow bus do what it’s intended to do — provide safe, environmentally friendly access to education for our nation’s children

(For additional information on the stop arm camera project and a timeline of legislation, see )

Derek Graham is the section chief for transportation services with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction – a position he has held since 1995. Graham is a past president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) and a founding member of the American School Bus Council.
Comments & Ratings

  2/19/2013 3:02:25 PM

Great Idea 
Great article technology is great here especailly when it comes to protecting our children!
  4/24/2012 4:14:33 AM
Cynthia Phillips 

Routing and Scheduling Coordinator 
This is a wonderful article. I enjoyed the statement about the school bus being the icon for education. You are correct. It is that way everywhere. Nice Work! Made me feel proud to work for school transportation!