The School Transportation Century

If the 18th century is considered the period of school transportation infancy and the 19th century is the period of the industry's adolescence, the 20th century saw the evolution of a fully developed, mature industry.  The solidifying role of the various disciplines such as construction standards, national minimum standards guidelines, scheduling and routing, federal motor vehicle safety standards, special needs transportation, railroad grade crossing safety, state and federal government involvement, occupant protection and more, have had a profound effect on the industry.

Throughout the last 100 years, the industry provided more than an estimated 500 billion student rides as the ranks of students being transported swelled to nearly 55 percent of all K-12 students. As the century drew to a close, the Yellow School Bus has replaced the Little Red Schoolhouse as the symbol of K-12 public education in the United States.  There is scant indication that transportation by yellow school bus will diminish during the 21st century.

This article initially appeared in the November 1999 edition of School Transportation News.

Critical Events that Shaped the Industry in the 20th Century

1900: At the dawn of the century 17 states had operable pupil transportation programs, starting with Massachusetts in 1869.

1915:  Navistar manufactures first school bus, the Model F, for Rivinia School District in South Dakota; the company’s name in 1915 was International Trucks.

1919:  All 48 states in the contiguous United States have enacted laws allowing the use of public funds for transporting school children.

1927:  Albert L. Luce, Sr. builds first all-steel body school bus.  Within eight years , all other major school bus manufacturers were building steel body school buses.

1927:  Columbia University doctoral dissertation by R.L. Johns who developed the theory that the cost per pupil transported was proportional to the density of pupils transported living the area.

1930-31:  Study by C.S. Noble, Jr. titled “Public School Bus Transportation in North Carolina.”

1936:  Perley A. Thomas wins North Carolina bid for 500 motorized, wooden school buses.  Company transitions to school bus manufacturing from street car manufacturing.

March 26, 1931: On this day, the Pleasant Hills School Bus Tragedy in which five children froze to death, started with the worst storm in 56 years in southeastern Colorado.

1937:  International Trucks offers a diesel option for school buses in every vehicle weight classification.

1938:  Survey of practices to purchase school buses in U.S. titled “Pupil Transportation in the United States” by C. S. Noble, Jr. under direction of Dr. Frank Cyr.

1938: The National Safety Council publishes a pamphlet titled “School Buses: Their Safe Design and Operation.”

1939:  Partially funded by Rockefeller monies, Columbia University’s Dr. Frank Cyr organized the first School Bus National Minimum Standards Conference.  In the interim 12 standards conferences — producing hundreds of minimum safety standards for the industry — have been developed.  The 13th National Conference on School Transportation is scheduled for May 2000.

1939:   Adoption of school bus yellow color for school buses.

Early 1940s:  World War II halts all school bus production and bus builders turn to war material production.

1942:   Alabama School Transportation holds first state association conference.  By the end of the century more than 75 industry-related state associations were organized.

1945:  U.S. Office of Education publishes a bulletin titled “Training School Bus Drivers.”

1948:   Albert L. Luce, Sr. buys flat-nose bus on GM chassis at Paris Auto show.  Two years later, Blue Bird introduces the All-American transit-style bus to the school transportation industry.

1951:   Southeastern States Pupil Transportation Conference holds first formal meeting.

1954:  Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed “separate but equal” facilities and segregation in general.

1954:  Defense Highway Act of 1954 led directly to the suburbanization of America.  Provided for nearly 47,000 miles of federal highway.

1959:  Development of the National Safety Council school bus safety section.

1963:   School Bus Safety Week organized in California by Dick Fischer; became a national program in 1970.

1964:  School Bus Manufacturers Institute (SBMI) organized.

Mid-1960s:  Consumer advocate Ralph Nadar criticizes school bus manufacturing techniques, coining the term “cookie cutter buses” to describe school buses.  Raises public awareness about school transportation.

1964:  Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 creates publicly funded public transportation industry.  Law formally splits s federally funded public transit from state and locally funded school bus transportation.

1964:  Ward Industries school bus rollover test in the first major test of school bus crashworthiness.  Bus rolls 5 1/4 times demonstrating weaknesses in joint strength, seat anchorages, and windows retention based on manufacturing techniques of the day.

1964:  Charles Ward of Ward Bus Co. begins use of IBM 402 mainframe computer for inventory and payroll and financial records; in 1967,utilizing an IBM 360,  the company began to database state laws, regulations and specifications for school buses.  By the time the century ends, computers had become indispensable to pupil transportation.

1965:  Bobit Publishing Co. launches School Bus Fleet magazine; begins era of  mass communication among school transporters.

1966:  The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 authorized the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to issue minimum safety standards for new motor vehicles, including school buses.  

1967:  Society of Automotive Engineers study at UCLA leads to calls for two-point seat belts, high back seats and other occupant protection strategies for school buses; the term “compartmentalization” enters public discourse, setting the stage for the Great Seat Belt Debate.

1967:  National Transportation Safety Board established as an independent federal agency promoting highway, aviation, railroad, marine, pipeline, and hazardous materials safety.  NTSB school bus Highway Accident reports bring school bus crashes to nationwide attention.

1967:  Ward School Bus Manufacturing Co. introduced the conveyor belt-driven, continually moving assembly line to school bus manufacturing.

1967:  Associated Charter Bus Co. of Van Nuys, Calif., becomes first school bus contractor to trade its stock publicly, raises $5 million on the American Stock Exchange.

1968:  National School Transportation Association organized to represent private school bus contractors.

1968:  National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services organized to represent interests of highest official in state governments responsible for pupil transportation.

1969:  Ward Industries conducts a Rivet Survey to ascertain how many rivets were used by school bus builders in school bus construction. Answer: 232 rivets to 4,000 rivets per bus.  Ward published results.  Discovery of the paucity of rivets in some buses aids in the development of the first joint strength standard for school buses.

1970:  Beginning of court-ordered busing for racial integration purposes.

1970:  First School Bus Loading & Unloading Zone Survey conducted and published by the Kansas Dept. of Transportation.  The survey, now in its 30th year, brings school bus safety and fatality rate to the attention of the American public.

1970:  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970.

1971:  Formation of the Vehicle Equipment Specifications Commission. A year later the VESC-6 specifications titled Minimum Requirements for School Bus Construction and Equipment were published. These specifications covered school bus joint strength, seat strength and seat anchorage strength.  The VESC-6 specifications were the predecessors to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for school buses promulgated in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

1971:  NSTA sponsors first National School Bus Roadeo; the event is renamed the International School Bus Driver Safety Competition in mid 1990s. By century end an estimated 200,000 school bus drivers participate annually in state, local roadeos.

1972:   NHTSA begins rulemaking leading to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 222: Occupant Seating Protection in School Buses.

1973:   St. Germain Amendment approved to Federal Aid Highway Act of 1973; this amendment was designed to protect private school bus contractors from competition by publicly funded mass transit.

1973:  $1 million in federal 402 funds appropriated by Congress for school bus driver training.

1973: Rehabilitation Act of 1973 enacted by Congress.  Section 504 mandates nondiscriminatory treatment of students with disabilities. Requires that transportation, like other educational services, be provided in a manner that gives disabled students equivalent access to educational opportunities when compared with that available to nondisabled peers.

1974:  Congress orders eight specific minimum performance standards for school buses.

1974:  Publication of Federal School Bus Standard 17 which described the federal government’s role in pupil transportation.  Renamed “Guideline 17” in 1992.

1974:  School bus tripper regulations issued defining permissible pupil transportation service by publicly funded mass transit agencies.

1974:  National Association for Pupil Transportation organized to represent the interests of school district and other publicly owned school bus operations.

1975:  Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 guarantees free appropriate public education including special education and related services, to all handicapped children. 

1975:   Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 enacted; federal law requires free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students in any of 13 disability categories. Since FAPE includes related services, and transportation is identified as a related service, this law has had a singular impact on school transportation.  IDEA is now in its 6th reauthorization.

1976:  An amendment to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 requested the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to consider the benefits of seat belts or other occupant restraints in school buses.

1977:  Adoption of the 1977 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for school buses, consisting of three new regulations together with modifications to four existing regulations that to this day govern the construction of all school buses in the U.S.

1980:  Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton takes active role in financial restructuring of Ward Bus Co. following the school bus manufacturer’s slide into bankruptcy.

1980:  Organization of the National Coalition for Seatbelts on School Buses, a grass roots advocacy association that lobbied for enactment of seat belts on school buses, elimination of standees on school buses, and elimination of pre-1977 school buses.  Ceases operation in early 1990s, reactivated as National Coalition for School Bus Safety in 1997.

1984:  International Harvester ceases to offer gasoline engines to school bus industry; switches entirely to diesel engines.

1984:  Canadian financier Michael deGroote launches Laidlaw when he acquires 3,000 buses from the student transportation division of  ARA Services.  

1986:  Congress enacts Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986, creating a new, federal Commercial Drivers License.  By the early 1990s, states nationwide had implemented the law. School bus industry lobbied to make school bus drivers subject to the law.

1987:  New York became the first state to mandate two-point seat belts on large school buses.  Four states — California (’99), Florida (’99), Louisiana (’99), and New Jersey (’92) — have since enacted seat belt laws for school buses.  None of these laws permit retrofitting existing school buses with lap belts.

1987:  Catastrophic school bus accidents in Carrolton, Ky. and Alton Tex., together with National Academy of Sciences Special Report 222 a couple of years later,  promoted development of the second wave of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for school buses.  Within less than a decade new regulations were promulgated for emergency exits, seat cover flammability, mirrors, wheelchairs lifts, etc.

1987:  The National Transportation Safety Board published a study about the Crashworthiness of Large Poststandard School Buses. The NTSB examined 43 serious accidents.  It did  not recommend that Federal school bus safety standards be amended to require that all new large school buses be equipped with lap belts for passengers. Instead, the NTSB concluded the safety benefits of such actions, both in terms of reduced injuries for school bus passengers and in seat belt use habit formation, had not been proven.

1988:  Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public schools, 108 s. Ct. 2481.  This U.S. Supreme Court case determined that a state’s decision to allow local school boards the option of charging a user fee for transportation is permissible.

1988 Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305.  This U.S. Supreme Court case held that dangerous students with disabilities are subject to IDEA procedural safeguards.

1989:  Transportation Research Board publishes Special Report 222: Improving School Bus Safety.

1991:  Era of mergers and acquisitions among chassis and bus body manufacturers inaugurated when chassis builder Navistar International purchases one-third interest in school bus body builder AmTran Corp.  Action initiated by AmTran executives. Navistar exercises an option and completes the purchase in 1995.

1992:   The inaugural National Conference and Exhibition on Transporting Students with Disabilities; creates national forum for special needs transportation.

1992:  Flint MTA (Mich.) wins bid to service Flint Community School District.  Sets stage for legal action by Lamers Bus Lines to  strengthen tripper regulations.

1992:  School Bus Supplier Council organized as subcommittee of NASDPTS to represent interests of manufacturers and suppliers to the industry; raises more than $100,000 annually to fund the activities of the National State Directors Association.

1994:  Concept of public awareness campaign for school bus industry first launched by Verna Borders at state association meeting in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Montana.  Formalized and launched nationally by California Association of School Transportation Officials in 1996.

1994:  School Transportation News offers first “internet” presence in industry with a text-based bulletin board.  Converts to World Wide Web a year later. Within five years more than 200 websites devoted to school buses and pupil transportation are published on the Internet.

1994: SOWHAT Committee organized to develop wheelchair crashworthiness standards. Three year project envisoned. Dean Transportation helps fund project with $50,000 donation. 

1995:  Simms v. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Contractor Lyle Stephens challenged NHTSA’s standards for securing wheelchairs.

1997:  NHTSA issues $1,000 fines against several automobile dealers for knowingly selling non-conforming vans to schools for student transportation purposes.  Action raises public awareness of the dangers of non-conforming vans in school service, and among Head Start & daycare providers.

1998:  NHTSA announces a two-year study of next generation occupant protection systems for school buses.

1998:  Globalization of automotive vehicle specifications under auspices of the European Commission.  NHTSA is U.S. federal government agency that commits U.S. to global standards for vehicle manufacturing.

1998:  $28 million awarded two students injured in Flagstaff, Ariz. school bus accident in largest school bus related civil judgement in history.

1999:  Three British firms acquire Blue Bird Corp. and several school bus contracting companies in the U.S., including Ryder Student Transportation Services and Durham Transportation.  Value of these several transactions exceeds $1.5 billion.

1999:  NHTSA publishes guidelines for safe transportation of Pre-K children.

1999: NAPT and National State Director’s Association team up to support effort and in 1999 announce national public awareness campaign.  Together the associations publish the School Bus Information Council website on the Internet.

1999:  In the space of three months, Florida, Louisiana and California enact mandatory seat belt laws for school buses.

1999:  All 50 states have operable pupil transportation programs.


    ... and more developments

Watershed developments  often cannot be identified with a precise start date. Often, important developments come slowly and imperceptible until at last they gain form and shape and their presence becomes evident.  Listed below are a number of these developments that helped shape the evolution of pupil transportation.  They are presented in this fashion rather than in the continuum that fashions this retrospective look, precisely because these developments evolved slowly. These developments are not presented in any order of importance.  Each has left an indelible mark on pupil transportation:

  • The controversy about whether or not to install seat belts in school buses.

  • The development of numerous safety devices for school buses, including stop signs on the left side of bus, crossing gates, improved mirrors, video cameras, automatic snow tire changers, two-way radios,  cellular phones, ABS brakes,  8-way warning lights, retroreflective materials on school buses, etc.

  • NAPT’s  program for professional certification and growth.

  • The move toward electronic diagnostics for school bus maintenance.

  • Computerized routing.

  • The rapid application of Internet technology as a means of information exchange among transporters.

  • The non-conforming van controversy.
  • Increased litigation surrounding  public education, including school busing; extension of sexual harassment prohibitions to the school bus.

  • The school bus driver shortage.

  • Criminal background checks of school bus drivers.

  • Emphasis on school consolidation, particularly in rural areas, leading to unprecedented demand for school transportation.

  • The move toward alternative fuels for school buses.

  • Nationwide growth of public and private sector state associations.
Source: School Transportation News, November 1999

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