Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Researchers are trying to figure out how to make drivers take those alerts more seriously.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are few safer ways to get to school than aboard a bright yellow school bus. The lumbering mother hens of the road are subject to a large batch of safety rules, which keep them heavy, tall, and equipped with emergency exits. School bus seats are extra padded, and purposefully designed into neat compartments to protect kiddos as an egg carton would eggs. Their roofs are reinforced with steel, in case of a rollover. And this stuff works: according to 2013 DOT data, just four school-age kids are killed aboard buses each year, compared to the 490 killed heading to and from school in other passenger vehicles.
The biggest risks in riding school buses come not while onboard, but while getting on and off. Of the 119 school-age pedestrians who died in school-vehicle-related crashes between 2003 and 2012, 65 percent were struck by the bus, but 30 percent were struck by another vehicle. And signs don’t always help. In a study of one of its districts, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) found that 20 percent of school bus-related crashes occurred near a “School Bus Stop Ahead” sign.
Signs don’t always work because drivers don’t always pay attention. Drivers don’t always stop behind school buses with their lights on, even though they’re generally required by law to do so. But ignoring signs isn’t necessarily purely driving neglect: in particularly hilly areas, or along particularly curvy roads, school bus stops sometimes have to be close to a crest or curve. That makes it difficult for even well-meaning drivers to see whether offloading children are nearby. There’s a psychological effect at play here, too. School buses only pause at stops twice a day, but drivers see “School Bus Stop Ahead” signs all the time. That inures motorists against the effects of the yellow placards, which is bad for school buses, bad for drivers, and bad, particularly, for the kids who actually have to get off at the stops.
Back in Ohio, DOT researchers are thinking seriously about how to get drivers to take school bus signs, well, more seriously. Their solution is inextricably linked to the human desire for anything bright and shiny.
In a paper released last month, the researchers suggested installing flashing lights to snap drivers to attention. This is not unprecedented: In Alberta, Canada—always a step ahead, up there in the Great White North—the government has been phasing out the use of non-flashing “School Bus Stop Ahead” signs since 2009. Previous research has found that these flashing signs are especially effective when they light up only when a bus is in sight.
But how do you get a sign to know that a bus is nearby? That’s where the tech comes in. The ODOT researchers evaluated a number of options, because it turns out there are are a lot.
A few examples: in the sensors category, we’ve got Automated Vehicle Location (AVL) technology, which pinpoints buses’ positions by GPS and transmits them to central command. Proximity sensors can determine whether a large, metallic object (say, a school bus) is nearby, and then tell the lights to flash accordingly. There are sensors that depend on radio frequency, like the technology used by traffic lights to sense whether an emergency vehicle (or bike) is nearby, and keep the lights green. In this case, the “School Bus Stop Ahead” sign would communicate with the radio-equipped bus. Lasers, another type of sensor, can figure out whether large or fast-moving vehicles are nearby. Video imaging processing systems could also be installed by each bus stop—in the same way they’re installed by toll roads—and use cameras to determine whether kids or buses are close.
The ODOT researchers also considered other, less traditional options: signs that send out warning honks or beeps when buses are nearby, or equipping cars with in-vehicle alert systems. (Research finds that the latter actually does get people to slow down, but at the cost of really, really annoying the humans behind the wheel.)
After a cost-benefit analysis, however, the winner was bluetooth. According to ODOT, a bluetooth system would use wireless transmitters on school buses to activate flashing lights mounted on “School Bus Stop Ahead” signs. Crucially, the transportation researchers find this system will be relatively inexpensive to install and maintain. Further testing is needed before Ohio goes all in on the technology, though, and that will include a pilot project.