Like the swallows returning to Capistrano or the appearance of wooly bear caterpillars, one sure sign of fall – at least here in the US – is the sighting of yellow school buses on local roads and streets. Finding myself inching along behind these vehicles gives me time to think about these every-day conveyances.
It’s not that I don’t otherwise have plenty of opportunity to think about school buses. First, I should note that I’m a person who so loved public school in general that I chose to make a life out of basically staying in school. Throughout my life, I’ve never been a devotee of or reverent to any particular school – I attended eight different schools before I graduated from high school – instead I have interacted with literally hundreds of different schools as a student, trainer and/or consultant. Through all of this, I’ve seen a lot of school buses in their natural and purposeful environment.
So with that as a basis, as a somewhat belated greeting to the new school year, here are some random reflections on school buses. A subject about which many people may not think a lot about; but as with so many things in day to day life, there’s more to school buses than might meet the eye. Which, I should note is ironic since about half the point of a school bus – certainly the color – is about insuring that they “meet the eye”.
Truth be told, many years of my childhood K-12 experience did not actually involve riding the bus. Maybe this is why I developed an early fascination with school buses. In my early school years, they were an aspect of the school experience that remained just beyond reach. In many of the schools I attended as a child, I was “a walker”. This means that I lived close enough to school to walk, something not altogether uncommon back in the late 1960s and 1970s. In fact, as an early elementary grade student in the DC suburbs, I not only walked to and from school but also walked home for lunch. This of course was back in the day when kids (and teachers!) got more than 20 minutes for lunch and recess, and lunch wasn’t considered a dangerous distraction from time on task learning.
What many families would nowadays consider an amazing thing – living so close to their child’s neighborhood school – I actually hated. Not only did I miss out on riding the school bus for those early years of elementary school, but I also missed school cafeteria lunch. If there’s one thing I love more than school buses, it’s school cafeterias (although I’ll have to find Cafeteria Classic to fully discuss my passion for tater tots and government cheese).
Fortunately, by the time I hit 4th grade, we had moved to another state and after a couple more moves (we changed houses a lot) lived far enough from the school such that I was able to ride the bus. This was in North Carolina which at the time was notable for not having yet gotten behind the concept of yellow school buses.
The bus in this picture is of course much older than what I was riding in 1973, but you can get an idea of the “Omaha Orange” color that many North Carolina districts used at the time I was growing up in Raleigh. The actual bus I rode looked a lot like this and was I believe a Dodge with a body by Blue Bird.
You might say “Orange”? Didn’t Frank Cyr in 1939 convene a convention at Columbia University where it was decided that all school buses would be painted yellow? Well, yes, and subsequent to 1939, many – but not all – school districts adopted a color called “National School Bus Chrome” for their buses. This color was apparently pretty close to what many of us call “school bus yellow”. Unfortunately it was also notable for being a lead-based paint and its formulation included a significantly carcinogenic substance called hexavalent chromium. While the 1939 standard did much to increase the on-road visibility of bright yellow school buses, that paint did no favors for the workers involved in manufacturing and periodically repainting the buses. But without a doubt, Dr. Cyr’s work in 1939 did move forward was the concept that school buses would be safer if they were more noticeable to other motorists. Prior to this point, school transportation — something which had been developing for years, starting in 1869 with Massachusetts as the first state to allocate state funds for transporting students — happened through a mixed bag of vehicles that had no standardization from location to location. An often-told story is of students in Kansas being transported in farm wagons and in other states buses being painted red, white, and blue to “instill patriotism” in students.
The standards Cyr and his fellow school administrators developed in 1939 existed for roughly another 30 years before the regulatory mood of the 1960s gave rise to tighter, somewhat less voluntary, federal standards. In 1966, the newly-established National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) included in its landmark set of regulations a section known as the Pupil Transportation Standard No. 17. Part of that guidance to states established that all vehicles certified to transport students should be painted in a color officially named “National School Bus Glossy Yellow”. This was very similar to the older, DNA-altering, Yellow Chrome color, but was much safer to work with. Still, as is the case with many federal regulations, some states took longer than others to implement the NHTSA guidance. Coming back around to my Omaha Orange bus in the early 1970s, North Carolina was one of the last states to adopt the federal standard and didn’t standardize on “yellow” until around 1977.
Another feature of the North Carolina school bus scene of my youth — one that also flew in the face of federal regulations — was that the buses were often as not driven by fellow students; that is, minors as young as 16 years old. Students driving students was in fact a reasonably common practice throughout the country until the 1950s when for a variety of obvious reasons states started to rein in the practice and move to adult, professional, drivers. But it wasn’t until 1988 that North and South Carolina rather reluctantly stopped hiring students as school bus drivers.
Research shows that a lot of ink was spilled in North Carolina newspapers disparaging federal child labor law that conspired to put the state out of its teenaged school bus driver workforce.
The tone of this 1966 newspaper article is interesting in how it quotes the state department of education as essentially blaming school programs for pulling kids away from being bus drivers. Furthermore, the clear implication was that students were hired for these jobs since they could be paid less than adults.
In 1967, the NC state school commissioner noted that 7500 of the state’s 9200 school bus drivers were under the age of 18. It took another 20 years before NC (and SC) joined the rest of the nation and complied with federal law by shifting to drivers who were over the age of 18.
As a kid at the time, all I knew was that it was something of a hoot having a bus driver in 6th grade who was nearly my same age. I can’t remember our driver’s name, but he was the older brother of some of the kids on the bus. He was gregarious and generally carried on lively conversation with his passengers during the whole trip. He also brought along his radio and would beat out a great rhythm on the big old bus wheel on our long cross-Raleigh bus rides, a product of forced desegregation in NC schools.
Our driver in 1973-74 (Kool and the Gang released Jungle Boogie in 1973 and it climbed the carts for the first half of 1974) looked much like the guy in the purple shirt at 0:16 … with less facial hair, befitting a 16 year old.
While it seems pretty obvious — based on my own experience — why being driven to school in a bus piloted by (essentially) fellow students probably wasn’t the best of ideas, I’m still quite sure that if I had managed to stay in North Carolina past the age of 13 I’d have made a strong pitch to be a student bus driver. I’d doubt that my parents would have agreed (not that they had anything against child labor), but I would have tried hard to change their position on the matter.
Instead, my family relocated again, returning to the DC area, and I found myself in yet another school where I mostly finished out my secondary school career as a walker. Actually, I lived in that kind of liminal zone where there was a bus, but if you chose to hoof it, you could. I was about 50-50, taking the bus in bad weather and walking the rest of the time. Also, around that time I started engaging in a considerable amount of after school club activity, often until quite late in the day. There was no late bus, so I had to walk home.
One of the things that kept me late at school was my participation in all manner of journalism and photography…which afforded many opportunities to take pictures of, you guessed it, school buses. Here we have representatives from Montgomery County (MD) public schools’ fleet of mostly International-based buses. Oh yeah, there are some students in the picture too.
And here the pretense was to photograph this attractive young student (whose name I cannot recall at all) for some yearbook article or end of the year slide show, but I’m sure that I was just as interested in highlighting that not all of our bus fleet was International based, but some were Dodges. Important stuff, you know.
As these photos point out, one of the things that for some reason all of the school buses of my youth shared was that they were the so-called “Type C” buses which ahead of the cowl looked more or less like the trucks they were derived from.
As you can imagine (well…you should), this meant that a “Type D” bus was an object of enduring fascination for me. These are of course the flat-front, “transit style” buses, where the door is in front of the front wheels. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt. And so I lusted after a ride in the type of bus that never managed to grace my bus stop. There was just something cooler about the Type D bus.
This opinion was also spurred at an early age by various children’s TV shows that offered crafting segments where viewers were encouraged to make school buses out of flat-top milk cartons.
The concept was to acquire one of these cartons, and then to fashion and attach four wheels using “paper fasteners” as hubs.
Despite the fact that this craft seemed to be featured prominently on children’s TV shows and in all of my go-to elementary school literature (i.e., Highlights Magazine and My Weekly Reader), there were two problems with this craft activity that frustrated the heck out of me. First, our milkman delivered milk in glass bottles, and then eventually paper cartons with the peaked top that are still common today. We totally didn’t have flat top milk cartons. Second, paper fasteners. This was an object that was beyond the ken of what I knew for office supplies. Paste, mucilage, tape, all those were fine; but my mom drew the line (she was all about drawling lines) at paper fasteners. She was not going to make a trip to the “stationery supply store” just for those. Or actually, ever for those. Maybe it was their fancy brass finish. I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I just sulked. Anyhow, lacking flat top milk cartons and paper fasteners, even a home-fabricated model Type D bus was out of my childhood reach.
Imagine my surprise and pleasure 30 years later when a Type D bus shows up to transport my kid to 1st grade! It really made the whole child-rearing experience up to that point totally worth it.
Unfortunately, this was a short-lived joy and my district’s bus contractor quickly phased out the flat-front Type D buses and replaced them with much more traditional (for around here at least) fare.
By this time, the bus contractor – my district, like most districts in my state, do not own their bus fleets and instead contract to large transportation companies for school bus operation – had pretty much standardized on Type C buses, and in particular the Saf-T-Line C2 by Thomas. I am thinking that the low hood-line on these diesel-powered appliances makes for a more car-like and less truck-like driving experience. Not ever having driven one, I can still appreciate that they’re probably easier to maneuver than the full-on truck that was the Type C bus of my youth. That, by the way is something to think about when considering my 16 year old bus driver in Raleigh 50 years ago.
At least though, the buses were/are Thomas-built. I say this because Thomas holds a special place in my heart so far as school bus constructors go. Thomas originates from North Carolina, High Point specifically. Which turns out to be where I originate from as well. Thomas is now a subsidiary of Daimler, but it maintains operations in High Point and stands as the oldest existing bus manufacturer in the U.S. Thomas was the first manufacturer to routinely offer convex blind spot crossing mirrors on all of its school buses. Although, it should be noted that Thomas did not invent the blind spot mirror.
That credit goes to Reid Stout, a Michigan-based inventor, principal, teacher and school bus driver. It was Thomas though that popularized the convex mirror which is now standard equipment on all school buses.
The convex blind spot mirror was by no means the last technological advance for school buses. For example, as one might imagine, there’s considerable effort currently being made among the major school bus manufacturers to market electric buses.
Thomas, Blue Bird, and several other companies are producing and piloting fully electric school buses. If nothing else, this should be a relief to anyone who has ever spent time sitting in traffic at exhaust pipe level behind a traditional diesel bus.
Fortunately, it appears that there are Type D electric buses as well…providing inspiration to on-going generations of kids who want to make school bus models. If only they can find flat-top milk cartons and their moms let them have paper fasteners.
Sadly, those future generations of kids who are familiar with and inspired by school buses might be vanishing. This is of course due to the scourge of school bus transport…the pickup line.
In my own school district, there’s an ongoing debate each year as to how to economically design bus routes when fewer and fewer students take the bus as opposed to being driven by mom or dad. Some years, the district has called for bus-riding students to pay what is essentially an activity fee in order to underwrite the provision of buses.
I find this sad for quite a few reasons that are simultaneously personal, cultural, social, and environmental. The American School Bus Council (of course there is…) no doubt finds the whole situation economically threatening. And well, I guess that can be chalked up to life in a changing world. We’ll just have to see where all of that comes out.
If I ever have grandchildren – as they used to say in Western Kentucky, “Maybe you can get you some!” — they might someday ask what that “truck with the stop sign on it” is that I have on my desk. And then I can direct them to this article and tell them the story about riding the orange bus (with funktastic accompaniment). They’ll naturally assume that it’s just a crazy story…until we go find some antique paper fasteners and a flat top milk carton on eBay and start building.