Understanding the History of School Buses

Understanding the History of School Buses

Today, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration points to school buses as the safest vehicles on the road. But it took more than a century for us to reach this level of confidence in them. Understanding the history of school buses will make you grateful for details like stop-sign arms, emergency exits, and that signature yellow.

1800s: School Hacks and Cars

Rural homes were spread out, but kids had to attend one-room schools that could be far beyond walking distance. One kind of horse-drawn carriage was known as a “hack,” so when these farm wagons were used for school commutes, they became known as “kid hacks.” In 1892, an Indiana company built the first “school car,” which had sides but no roof. A horse pulled the primitive bus as kids sat on benches around the perimeter of the wagon. Children got on and off through a rear door so that they wouldn’t startle the horses. It was the precursor to the rear emergency exits we still use today.

1919: Transportation for All

All 48 United States established funding for school buses. The students’ wagons were adapted for truck frames and “horseless” engines. The ride wasn’t any smoother for the kids, though. The buses remained roofless, with the occasional tarpaulin pulled over the top.

1939: School Bus Yellow

Transportation officials and bus manufacturers gathered in New York City for a weeklong conference at Columbia University. To make school buses more consistent across the country, they agreed on 44 standards, including:

  • Interior and exterior dimensions
  • Forward-facing seating
  • Aisle width
  • Seating height

One significant change remains today. The attendees decided that every school bus in North America should be the same color, now known as “school bus yellow.” They considered it the easiest shade to see at dawn and dusk, and it contrasted well with the black lettering that would identify the bus.

1950s and ’60s: OK, Boomers

Post-World War II’s Baby Boomers filled elementary and high schools as the population exploded, and buses grew larger to accommodate them. Some could carry 91 passengers. This necessitated heavy-duty truck chassis and diesel engines. At the same time, manufacturers created smaller buses for isolated country areas that didn’t need as much seating. Shorter buses were also easier to navigate on some urban streets that were crowded, narrow, and twisting. At the end of the ’50s, bus makers developed the first wheelchair lift. It’s changed over the decades, but the basic concept remains the same.

1970s: Safety Advances

As more traffic appeared on the roads, confusion surrounded school buses that had to make frequent stops on their routes. Manufacturers made changes in the buses’ structure to make it more crashworthy, and federal and state regulators tackled the rules of the road. They also started to require:

Amber Lights

Drivers were already familiar with yellow lights at intersections that warn them to slow down before a stop signal lit up. Regulators applied the same concept to buses. They asked for yellow warning lights that would flash as buses started to slow down for a stop. This way, cars had much more warning when students would be boarding and leaving buses on busy streets.

Stop Arms

In case that wasn’t obvious enough, manufacturers started to install stop sign arms that would extend when the bus halted for pickups and drop-offs. The arms were connected to the bus’s wiring so that they would light up with red flashing lights.

Taller Seat Backs

The National Highway Safety Transportation Administration determined that heavy school buses distribute crash force in different ways than other vehicles. So instead of seat belts, buses relied on “compartmentalization” to keep children safe. Taller seats with thick padding on the front and back provide a barrier cushion in the event of a collision.

1980s: More Requirements

  • The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 ruled that all large vehicles have a driver with enough training to earn a commercial driver’s license.
  • Stick shifts gave way to more buses with automatic transmissions. It cut down on the risk of buses stalling at critical spots like railroad crossings and busy intersections.
  • The length of buses created considerable blind spots for drivers. Cross-view mirrors became more common on buses so that drivers could watch for pedestrians who were too close.
  • The enormous gas-guzzlers were increasingly replaced by diesel engines for better fuel economy.
  • Bus designs started to include emergency exits in addition to the rear doors. Passengers could escape through roof-mounted hatches and windows that opened outward.

Modern Buses: Technology Takes Over

Stop Arm Cameras

Despite the flashing lights, some car drivers choose to pass stopped buses, even though it’s against the law. Now stop-arm cameras can record the license plates of offenders so that they can be fined or prosecuted.

No Child Left Behind Safety Alarms

Drivers must check the bus before they leave it to ensure that no kids have fallen asleep or missed their stops. Now, alarm systems reinforce this measure. A driver can turn off the system at the back of the bus, so they can’t neglect checking one more time for kids onboard.

On-Board Cameras

It’s difficult for drivers to monitor passenger behavior on school buses. But more sophisticated video systems can record the goings-on to identify and document any problem passengers. Video cameras have also been able to record any driver shortcomings.

Wi-Fi Capability

With internet access, students can use their time on buses to study and finish homework. During the COVID-19 crisis, these buses have also pitched in as “hot spots” for areas with poorer students. School buses parked near their homes so that they could access the internet for Zoom classes.

GPS Systems

Because of the Wi-Fi on buses, GPS systems can help bus fleets in a number of ways. It can transmit maintenance information in real-time to supervisors for more efficient management. It can sound an alert if the bus diverts to any unapproved areas from their routes. And it can update parents about where their children are and when they will arrive at school or at home.

Electric Energy

The first full-sized electric bus hit the market in 2015. A few hundred zero-emissions buses have been delivered to districts, but we’re still quite a few years away from greener buses being the norm. School buses are perfect for electric systems because they don’t need to travel farther than a battery can accommodate. They can also charge overnight.

National Bus Sales has a good understanding of the history of school buses because we’ve been witnessing it for more than 30 years. If you’re looking for a new or used school bus for sale, we have a selection of buses that we can customize and deliver to you anywhere in the country. Contact us to find out more about shuttles, coaches, and vans, too.

Understanding the History of School Buses


Steve Henshaw President National Bus Sales

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *