Tech helps school transportation officials slash costs, enhance safety

As security concerns mount and budgets constrict, school districts and transportation contractors are using new software programs and state-of-the-art technology to manage costs, improve services, and provide a safer environment for transporting students to and from school.

School bus operators are using new software and technology in three main areas:

  • Route management and tracking;
  • Safety and security; and
  • Fuel cost and operational savings.

    Indeed, skyrocketing fuel prices are hitting school transportation directors and coordinators right where it hurts most–in their pocketbooks. Transportation specialists are fighting back by using sophisticated routing and tracking software to achieve optimal efficiencies.

    State-of-the-art software enables route planners to adjust schedules immediately when students move in or out of an area and to determine if the sizes of the buses in their fleet are properly matched to meet routing needs, notes Cindy Herrmann, a spokeswoman for Transfinder, a MapInfo partner. “Our software enables routers to put on smaller buses that use less fuel and to conduct maintenance at the right time to improve fuel efficiency,” she explains.

    The issue of fuel economy is not really new, says Terri Fallon, marketing director at VersaTrans Solutions in Latham, N.Y., but it gets more emphasis today because of runaway gas prices. And that’s translated into unprecedented sales boosts for many computer software providers, she adds.

    On the routing and operations management front, the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology to track school buses continues to expand exponentially. IC Corp., one of the nation’s largest school bus manufacturers, has just introduced a pilot program with 10 New York school districts that integrates a GPS–or telematics–solution into their buses. The AWARE Vehicle Intelligence program, developed by IC’s parent company, International Truck and Engine, helps improve overall school transportation operations though better maintenance efficiencies and immediate knowledge of vehicle location, IC officials say. Besides tracking buses’ real-time locations and indicating when particular stops were made, the program provides remote vehicle performance monitoring, diagnostics, and service information, according to IC officials.

    To slash long-term costs and reduce pollution, transportation directors also are turning to new emissions technologies. The issue received even greater attention in May with the release of a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. The group’s study graded each state in terms of its school bus pollution and clean-up efforts. Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington all received “D” rankings. Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, and New York each received the highest mark, a “B” ranking.

    At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is promoting the Clean School Bus program, which was allocated $7 million in FY 2006 for projects involving retrofitting or replacing older diesel school buses. Those funds are being distributed through EPA regional offices, which are issuing requests for applications. These requests will be listed on the National Clean Diesel Campaign web site (see link below). Eligible applicants for these funds are school districts, state and local government programs, federally recognized Indian tribes, and nonprofit organizations.

    While funding for FY 2007 hasn’t been determined, the 2005 Energy Policy Act authorized up to $200 million for diesel emission reduction programs, which would include clean school bus projects, according to EPA officials. “The appropriation process is currently under way,” reports agency spokeswoman Roxanne Smiths.

    In addition, more school districts are exploring the use of alternative fuels to save money. For example, propane–which had experienced a decline when manufacturers pulled back on offering school buses suitable for conversion–got a boost with the announcement by Blue Bird Corp. that it will bring its 72-passenger propane-fueled school bus to market this fall. Blue Bird’s vehicle is the first propane bus offered in the U.S. by a major manufacturer since 2002.

    With high fuel prices and the cost of new diesel school bus engines expected to increase as much as $5,000 to meet 2007 emissions standards, propane may become enticing to transportation operations, according to Blue Bird Vice President Jay McDuffie. While alternative fuel technologies are creating a discernible buzz, perhaps the most revolutionary development involving school bus transportation technology is a pilot project under consideration in New Mexico. Lawmakers there are considering a measure that would place electronic devices on school buses to make the ride to and from school more educational for students.

    The proposal debated this year would have allocated $2 million to equip buses operating in rural areas–involving lengthy rides for students–with VCRs and television monitors or iPods. The measure did not make it through the legislature this session. But, according to Gilbert Perea, assistant secretary for student transportation at the New Mexico Department of Education, support for the concept is growing, and it probably will be revived in 2007.

    “There was concern over which new technology would be the most effective–VCRs or iPods,” he explains. Part of the discussion involved how to have instructional material that would be useful to students at different grade levels, because many buses transport students of all ages. There was general agreement that laptop computers were problematic because of concerns that the devices would be tossed around, causing injuries and potential accidents, Perea adds.

    On the safety front, video cameras and other electronic devices are increasingly regarded as useful tools for monitoring behavior by students inside the bus, and for observing possible criminal activity or traffic violations by adults on and around buses. A Texas school district has begun looking at the use of heat-sensing devices to improve safety around school buses, following an accident in which a nine-year-old student was hit by a school bus while riding her bicycle to school.

    Houston authorities decided no charges should be filed against the driver of the Pasadena Independent School District bus, concluding that a blind spot prevented the driver from seeing the girl as she apparently tried to cross in front of the bus.

    The district decided to look at heat-sensing technology that could be used to cover such blind spots by picking up the body heat of a child and then alerting the bus driver by light and sound warnings, according to Pasadena ISD spokesman Kirk Lewis. However, he adds, the district is delaying the installation of the technology until more information is available on how it performs and whether drivers might over-rely on the devices. “It’s really not a proven technology yet. We’re not closing the door on it, because it looks very promising,” he comments.

    Security of another sort is being promoted by VersaTrans, which reports that the need for such protection came up in an unexpected way recently. It seems, Fallon says, that several states are interested in ferreting out sexual predators from school bus stop areas and are taking a closer look at using computer software for such tracking.

    In fact, VersaTrans is offering a new feature as part of its software (RP version 9.5) that would allow users to determine where sex offenders are located and plan bus stops accordingly.

    Meanwhile, in Washington state, the Sedro-Woolley School District used Transfinder software to help convict a methamphetamine lab operator. Under Washington law, having a meth lab within 200 feet of a bus stop automatically adds five years to a sentence, explains district transportation director Alva Lissner. Local police asked the district to help them determine if there was a bus stop within that distance, and the district was able to print out a map showing that a stop indeed was present, according to Lissner. The bottom line on new technology, according to Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, “I’ve been in this industry since 1991. What I’ve seen is the technology curve growing steeper and steeper since the 1990s. Putting cutting-edge technology on school buses is becoming more common, and there’s no turning back.”

    Michael Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer living in North Potomac, Md.

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