The Houston Independent School District (HISD) has rolled out a new program that will equip school buses with data-recording devices similar to the “black boxes” found on airplanes. District officials say the boxes will allow them to reduce maintenance and fuel costs while increasing students’ safety.

Announced Oct. 18 as part of National Bus Safety Week, the program will place the devices in more than one-third of the district’s 1,400 buses this year. The devices are capable of recording data relating to speed, idle time, hard breaking, unsafe stops, excessive accelerating, and other information.

The computerized trip recorders, which are being provided by Zepco Sales & Service Inc. of Richardson, Texas, were showcased at Longfellow Elementary School by HISD Superintendent Rod Paige and other school district officials.

“We think this is going to demonstrate for the public how well our drivers are trained, and how well they perform what you and I know to be very difficult responsibilities, because we all drive the streets of Houston,” Paige said.

Information from the Zepco Trip Recorders will be gathered monthly, or after an accident. HISD will use the data to create “report cards” that rate bus drivers’ performance.

The Zepco Trip Recorders, which sell commercially for $1,195, are available to school districts for $1,095, according to Steve Belden, president of Zepco. The devices have an on-board computer with “Touch Memory” for identifying the driver and can be customized to fit a district’s needs.

Data can be downloaded via cable, PCMCIA card, radio frequency, or cellular to any 386 or better PC. With Zepco’s Windows-based software, data can be manipulated in a variety of ways. It can be converted and downloaded into spreadsheets, word processors, graphic charts, route mapping software, or other applications.

Zepco’s Risk Management software grades drivers in each of six areas: speeding, braking, safe boarding/deboarding, engine idle time, engine RPM, and route milage.

Armed with that information, HISD said it will use the devices not just for safety improvements, but also to reduce costs. School officials said that cutting down on speed would lower fuel costs, while reducing hard breaking and excessive mileage would lower maintenance expenses.

According to David Healy, assistant superintendent of HISD’s transportation division, the recorders will be installed randomly in 500 buses this year. More could be added to other buses later if HISD finds them to be cost-effective, he said.

“We think this is just another example of our commitment to the children of our district,” Healy said.

Since 1998, HISD has taken several steps to upgrade the safety of its transportation fleet. The district fired more than 40 bus drivers that spring and implemented a new safety program in which buses were inspected four times a day. All buses in the system are equipped with either a cellular phone or a two-way radio.

School officials said the measures have worked and that collisions declined 19 percent between the 1997-98 and 1998-99 school years.


Houston Independent School District, 3830 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX 77027; phone (713) 892-6000, web

Zepco Sales & Service Inc., 508 N. Central Expressway, Richardson, Texas 75080; phone (800) 527-4305, fax (972) 690-1061, eMail, web