A school bus is a type of bus owned, leased, contracted to, or operated by a school or school district. It is regularly used to transport students to and from school or school-related activities, but not including a charter bus or transit bus. Various configurations of school buses are used worldwide; the most iconic examples are the yellow school buses of the United States and Canada.
In North America, school buses are purpose-built vehicles distinguished from other types of buses by design characteristics mandated by federal and state regulations. In addition to their distinct paint color (school bus yellow), school buses are fitted with exterior warning lights (to give them traffic priority) and multiple safety devices.
In the second half of the 19th century, many rural areas of the United States and Canada were served by one-room schools. For those students who lived beyond practical walking distance from school, transportation was facilitated in the form of the kid hack; at the time, “hack” was a term referring to certain types of horse-drawn carriages.
One of the longest-running school bus manufacturers, Wayne Works (later Wayne Corporation), started producing its first school wagons in Indiana in the late 1880s. Essentially a re-purposed farm wagon with the addition of interior bench seats, the design featured a rear entrance door. As kid hacks were horse-drawn vehicles, the feature was intended in order to avoid startling the horses while loading or unloading passengers.
After the first decade of the 20th century, student transport underwent a major transition, as vehicles transitioned from horse-drawn wagons towards “horseless” automotive chassis. In terms of overall configuration, few initial changes were made, as wagon bodies were adapted to truck frames. For the passenger compartment, the rear entry door and perimeter bench seating remained. For most of the first three decades, school bus bodies were given little, if any, weather protection, sometimes consisting of a tarpaulin stretched above the passenger seating.
In 1927, Ford dealership owner A.L. Luce produced a bus body for a 1927 Ford Model T. Unlike previous wood-bodied buses, Luce used wood only to frame the body of the bus, paneling the body in steel; this would become the first bus produced by what would later become bus manufacturer Blue Bird. While the bus was constructed with a roof, its only weather protection was afforded by roll-up canvas side curtains.
During the 1930s, several advances in school buses were seen that would change its design and production forever. To better adapt automotive chassis design, school bus entry doors were moved from the rear to the front curbside, becoming a door operated by the driver (to ease loading passengers and improve forward visibility). However, school buses retained the rear door, re-purposed as an emergency exit. Following the introduction of the steel-paneled 1927 Luce bus, school bus manufacturing began to transition towards all-steel bus bodies. In 1930, both Wayne and Superior introduced all-steel school buses, with Wayne introducing a body with safety glass windows.
As school bus design paralleled design of light to medium-duty commercial trucks of the time, the advent of forward-control trucks would have their own influence on school bus design. In an effort to gain extra seating capacity and visibility, Crown Coach built its own cabover school bus design from the ground up. The highest-capacity school bus of the time, the 76-passenger Crown Supercoach was aptly named, as many California school districts operated in terrain requiring heavy-duty vehicles. As the 1930s progressed, flat-front school buses began to follow motorcoach design in styling as well as engineering, partially the reason the industry adopted “transit-style” in naming them. In 1940, the first mid-engined transit school bus was produced by Gillig in California.
Developing production standards
The custom-built nature of school buses created an inherent obstacle to their profitable mass production on a large scale. Although school bus design had moved away from the wagon-style kid hacks of the generation before, there was not yet an agreed on set of industry-wide standards for school buses. Organized by rural education expert Dr. Frank W. Cyr, a week-long 1939 conference at Teachers College, Columbia University forever changed the design and production of school buses. Funded by a $5000 grant, Dr. Cyr had invited transportation officials, representatives from body and chassis manufacturers, and paint companies.
To reduce the complexity of school bus production and increase safety, a set of 44 standards were agreed upon and adopted by the attendees (such as interior and exterior dimensions and the forward-facing seating configuration). To allow for large-scale production of school buses among body manufacturers, adoption of these standards allowed for greater consistency among body manufacturers.
While many of the standards of the 1939 conference have been modified or updated, one part of its legacy remains a key part of every school bus in North America today: the adoption of a standard paint color for all school buses. While technically named National School Bus Glossy Yellow, school bus yellow was adopted for use since it was considered easiest to see in dawn and dusk, and it contrasted well with black lettering. While not universally used worldwide, yellow has become the shade most commonly associated with school buses both in North America and abroad.
In the years leading up to World War II, education systems would take a larger role in school bus operation, with bus ownership transitioning from single individuals to local school districts beginning their own fleets of school buses and employing bus drivers.
Following World War II and the rise of suburban growth in North America, demand for school busing increased outside of rural areas. In all but the most isolated areas, one-room schools from the turn of the century were largely phased out in favor of the multi-grade schools introduced in urban areas. In the suburbs and larger urban areas, community design often made walking to school impractical beyond a certain distance from home, particularly as students progressed into high school.
At the beginning of the 1950s, the baby boom generation began their education, leading to a significant increase in student populations across North America; this would be a factor that would directly influence school bus production into the early 1980s. To accommodate the larger student populations, school buses began to grow in size, adding extra rows of seats for the bus body. Coinciding with the larger bodies, truck manufacturers began to offer heavier-duty bus chassis. The same applied to transit-style school buses, as the first diesel-powered school bus was introduced in 1954 and the first tandem axle school bus in 1955 (a Crown Supercoach, with a 91-passenger seating capacity). At the end of the 1950s, a new option was developed, which is specified in many school buses today: a curbside wheelchair lift to transport wheelchair-bound passengers.
As full-size school buses grew larger during the 1950s and early 1960s, they became difficult to navigate the crowded, narrow streets of urban neighborhoods; other rural routes were extremely isolated, with roads that could not accommodate full-size buses. To fill this role, yellow-painted vehicles such as the International Travelall and Chevrolet Suburban came into use. As they entered production in the 1960s, passenger vans such as the Chevrolet Van/GMC Handi-Van, Dodge A100, and Ford Econoline were converted to school bus use, largely by the addition of red warning lights and yellow paint. A drawback to using passenger vans and utility vehicles is that, along with their lower seating capacity, they could not offer the same level of safety as a full-size school bus.
During the 1960s, as with standard passenger cars, concerns began to arise for passenger protection in catastrophic traffic collisions. At the time, the weak point of the body structure was the body joints; where panels and pieces were riveted together, joints could break apart in major accidents, with the bus body causing harm to passengers. After subjecting a bus to a rollover test in 1964, in 1969, Ward Body Works pointing that fasteners had a direct effect on joint quality (and that body manufacturers were using relatively few rivets and fasteners). In its own research, Wayne Corporation discovered that the body joints were the weak points themselves. In 1973, to reduce the risk of body panel separation, Wayne introduced the Wayne Lifeguard, a school bus body with single-piece body side and roof stampings. While single-piece stampings seen in the Lifeguard had their own manufacturing challenges, school buses of today use relatively few side panels to minimize body joints.
During the 1970s, school buses would undergo a number of design upgrades related to safety. While many changes were related to protecting passengers, others were intended to minimizing the chances of traffic collisions. To decrease confusion over traffic priority (increasing safety around school bus stops), federal and state regulations were amended, requiring for many states/provinces to add amber warning lamps inboard of the red warning lamps. Similar to a yellow traffic light, the amber lights are activated before stopping (at 100–300 feet (30.5–91.4 m) distance), indicating to drivers that a school bus is about to stop and unload/load students. Adopted by a number of states during the mid-1970s, amber warning lights became nearly universal equipment on new school buses by the end of the 1980s. To supplement the additional warning lights and to help prevent drivers from passing a stopped school bus, a stop arm was added to nearly all school buses; connected to the wiring of the warning lights, the deployable stop arm extended during a bus stop with its own set of red flashing lights.
In the 1970s, school busing expanded further, under controversial reasons; a number of larger cities began to bus students in an effort to racially integrate schools. Out of necessity, the additional usage created further demand for bus production.
Industry safety regulations
From 1939 to 1973, school bus production was largely self-regulated. In 1973, the first federal regulations governing school buses went into effect, as FMVSS 217 was required for school buses; the regulation governed specifications of rear emergency exit doors/windows. Following the focus on school bus structural integrity, NHTSA introduced the four Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for School Buses, applied on April 1, 1977, bringing significant change to the design, engineering, and construction of school buses and a substantial improvement in safety performance.
While many changes related to the 1977 safety standards were made under the body structure (to improve crashworthiness), the most visible change was to passenger seating. In place of the metal-back passenger seats seen since the 1930s, the regulations introduced taller seats with thick padding on both the front and back, acting as a protective barrier. Further improvement has resulted from continuing efforts by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Transport Canada, as well as by the bus industry and various safety advocates. As of 2018 production, all of these standards remain in effect.
As manufacturers sought to develop safer school buses, a new generation of small school buses was developed. As a replacement for passenger van conversions, manufacturers began production of bus bodies using cutaway van chassis. Along with safer body construction and additional seating capacity, buses such as the Wayne Busette and Blue Bird Micro Bird introduced the capability of wheelchair lifts.
Standard Name Effective Date Requirement Standard No. 217 – Bus Emergency Exits and Window Retention and Release September 1, 1973 This established requirements for bus window retention and release to reduce the likelihood of passenger ejection in crashes, and for emergency exits to facilitate passenger exit in emergencies. It also requires that each school bus have an interlock system to prevent the engine starting if an emergency door is locked, and an alarm that sounds if an emergency door is not fully closed while the engine is running. Standard No. 220 – School Bus Rollover Protection April 1, 1977 This established performance requirements for school bus rollover protection, to reduce deaths and injuries from failure of a school bus body structure to withstand forces encountered in rollover crashes. Standard No. 221 – School Bus Body Joint Strength April 1, 1977 This established requirements for the strength of the body panel joints in school bus bodies, to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from structural collapse of school bus bodies during crashes. Standard No. 222 – School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection April 1, 1977 This established occupant protection requirements for school bus passenger seating and restraining barriers, to reduce deaths and injuries from the impact of school bus occupants against structures within the vehicle during crashes and sudden driving maneuvers. Standard No. 301 – Fuel System Integrity – School Buses April 1, 1977 This specified requirements for the integrity of motor vehicle fuel systems, to reduce the likelihood of fuel spillage and resultant fires during and after crashes.
For school bus manufacturers, the 1980s marked a period of struggle, following a combination of factors. As the decade began, the end of the baby-boom generation had finished high school; with a decrease in student population growth, school bus manufacturing was left with a degree of overcapacity. Coupled with the recession economy of the early 1980s, the decline in demand for school bus production left several manufacturers in financial ruin. To better secure their future, during the 1990s, school bus manufacturers underwent a period of transition, with several ownership changes leading to joint ventures and alignments between body manufacturers and chassis suppliers.
In 1986, with the signing of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act, school bus drivers across the United States became required to acquire a commercial driver’s license (CDL). While CDLs were issued by individual states, the federal CDL requirement ensured that drivers of all large vehicles (such as school buses) had a consistent training level.
In contrast to the 1970s focus on structural integrity, design advances during the 1980s and 1990s focused around the driver. In 1979 and 1980, International Harvester and Ford each introduced a new-generation bus chassis, with General Motors following suit in 1984. To increase driver visibility, updates in line with chassis redesigns shifted the bus driver upward, outward, and forward. To decrease driver distraction, interior controls were redesigned with improved ergonomics; automatic transmissions came into wider use, preventing the risk of stalling (in hazardous places such as intersections or railroad crossings). Initially introduced during the late 1960s, crossview mirrors came into universal use, improving the view of the blind spots in front of the bus while loading or unloading. To supplement the rear emergency door in an evacuation, manufacturers introduced additional emergency exits during the 1980s, including roof-mounted escape hatches and outward-opening exit windows. Side-mounted exit doors (originally introduced on rear-engine buses), became offered on front-engine and conventional-body buses as a supplemental exit.
Alongside safety, body and chassis manufacturers sought to advance fuel economy of school buses. During the 1980s, diesel engines came into wide use in conventional and small school buses, gradually replacing gasoline-fueled engines. In 1987, International became the first chassis manufacturer to offer diesel engines exclusively, with Ford following suit in 1990.
While conventional-style buses remained the most widely-produced full-size school bus, interest in forward visibility, higher seating capacity, and shorter turning radius led to a major expansion of market share of the transit-style configuration, coinciding with several design introductions in the late 1980s. Following the 1986 introduction of the Wayne Lifestar, the AmTran Genesis, Blue Bird TC/2000, and Thomas Saf-T-Liner MVP would prove far more successful.
During the 1990s, small school buses shifted further away from their van-conversion roots. In 1991, Girardin launched the MB-II, combining a single rear-wheel van chassis with a full cutaway bus body. Following the 1992 redesign of the Ford E-Series and the 1997 launch of Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana cutaway chassis, manufacturers followed suit, developing bodies to optimize loading-zone visibility. As manufacturers universally adopted cutaway bodies for single rear-wheel buses, the use of the Dodge Ram Van chassis was phased out. By the late 1990s[when?], the United States government banned the use of 15-passenger vans for student transport, leading to the introduction of Multi-Function School Activity Buses (MFSAB). To better protect passengers, MFSABs share the body structure and compartmentalized seating layout of school buses. Not intended (nor allowed) for uses requiring traffic priority, they are not fitted with school bus warning lights or stop arms (nor are they painted school bus yellow).
In 1980, school buses were manufactured by six body manufacturers (Blue Bird, Carpenter, Superior, Thomas, Ward, Wayne) and three chassis manufacturers (Ford, General Motors, and International Harvester); in California, two manufacturers (Crown and Gillig) manufactured transit-style school buses using proprietary chassis (sold primarily across the West Coast). From 1980 to 2001, all eight bus manufacturers would undergo periods of struggle and ownership changes. In 1980, Ward filed for bankruptcy, reorganizing as AmTran in 1981. The same year, Superior was liquidated by its parent company, closing its doors. Under its company management, Superior was split into two manufacturers, with Mid Bus introducing small buses in 1981 and a reorganized Superior producing full-size buses from 1982 to 1985. At the end of 1989, Carpenter would file for bankruptcy, emerging from it in 1990. In 1991, Crown Coach would close its doors forever; Gillig produced its last school bus in 1993. Following several ownership changes, Wayne Corporation was liquidated in 1992; successor Wayne Wheeled Vehicles was closed in 1995. In 2001, Carpenter closed its doors.
During the 1990s, as body manufacturers secured their future, family-owned businesses were replaced by subsidiaries as manufacturers underwent mergers, joint ventures, and acquisitions with major chassis suppliers. In 1991, Navistar began its acquisition of AmTran (fully acquiring it in 1995), phasing out the Ward brand name in 1993. In 1992, Blue Bird would change hands for the first of several times. In 1998, Carpenter was acquired by Spartan Motors and Thomas Built Buses was sold to Freightliner; the latter was the final major school bus manufacturer operating under family control.
Alongside the 1981 introduction of Mid Bus, Corbeil commenced production in Canada in the United States in 1985. Following the second (and final) closure of Superior in 1986, New Bus Company acquired the rights to its body design, producing buses from 1988 to 1989. In 1991, TAM-USA was a joint venture to produce the TAM 252 A 121. Assembled in Slovenia with final assembly in California, the TAM vehicle was to be the first American-market school bus imported from Europe.
In comparison to body manufacturers, chassis suppliers saw a smaller degree of transition. As International Harvester became Navistar International in 1986, the company released updated bus chassis for 1989; in 1996, it produced its first rear-engine bus chassis since 1973. In late 1996, Freightliner produced its first bus chassis, expanding to four manufacturers for the first time since the exit of Dodge in 1977. Ford and General Motors gradually exited out of cowled-chassis production with Ford producing its last chassis after 1998; General Motors exited the segment after 2003. Both Ford and GM continue production today, concentrating on cutaway-van chassis.
As an outcome of manufacturer consolidation and industry contraction during the 1990s, the beginning of the 21st century marked extensive changes to the production of school buses. In place of customers selecting body and chassis manufacturers separately, body and chassis combinations were now determined by corporate ownership and supply agreements. While the aspect of customer choice had largely ended, decreased complexity paved the way for new product innovations previously thought impossible. During the 2000s, manufacturers introduced a new generation of conventional-style school buses. During the 2010s, while diesel engines remain the primary source of power, school bus manufacturers underwent an expansion of alternative-fuel vehicles, including CNG, propane, gasoline, and electric-power buses.
While the underlying design of Type A school buses saw little change, by the early 2000s, the Type B configuration had largely ended production; along with the 1998 sale of the General Motors P-chassis to Navistar subsidiary Workhorse, the design was largely phased out in favor of higher-capacity Type A buses. In 2006, IC Bus introduced the BE200, its first small school bus (a Type B with a fully cowled chassis). In 2010, IC produced its first cutaway-cab school bus, the AE-series; both the AE and BE were produced to 2015. In 2018, Collins began production of the Collins Low Floor; based on the front-wheel drive Ram ProMaster, it is the first low-floor school bus (of any configuration).
In line with large bus manufacturers, small bus manufacturers saw a degree of transition, aside from the failure of startup manufacturer Liberty Bus, contraction was largely absent. In 2007, Collins Bus Corporation acquired Canadian manufacturer Corbeil out of bankruptcy, consolidating its brand alongside Mid Bus in its Kansas production facility. In 2007, U.S. Bus was reorganized as Trans Tech. In 2009, Blue Bird and Girardin entered into a joint venture, named Micro Bird; Micro Bird produces and develops the small-bus product line for Blue Bird in Canada. During the 2010s, Collins retired the Mid Bus and Corbeil brands (in 2013 and 2016, respectively).
At the beginning of the 2000s, coinciding with truck redesigns, manufacturers saw the retirement and introduction of several major cowled chassis. In 2003, the Chevrolet/GMC B7 ended production, with the International 3800 retired in 2004 (the final version of the International S-Series). In 2004, Blue Bird and Thomas introduced conventional-style school buses that integrated body and chassis within a single manufacturer. Blue Bird introduced the Vision; although a conventional, Blue Bird also produced the cowled chassis (in line with the All American). Thomas introduced the Saf-T-Liner C2; deriving its chassis from the Freightliner Business Class M2, the body of the C2 was designed together alongside its chassis. A trait of both the Vision and C2 (over their predecessors) is improved loading-zone visibility; both vehicles adopted highly sloped hoods and extra glass around the entry door. In 2011, Lion Bus (today Lion Electric Company) of Saint-Jérôme, Quebec marked the return of full-size bus production to Canada. Using a chassis supplied by Spartan Motors, Lion produces a conventional-style bus with either diesel or electric power. In an industry first, Lion produces a school bus with composite exterior panels (in place of steel).
During the 2000s, school bus safety adopted a number of evolutionary advances. To further improve visibility for other drivers, manufacturers began to replace incandescent lights with LEDs for running lights, turn signals, brake lights, and warning lamps. School bus crossing arms, first introduced in the late 1990s, came into wider use. Electronics took on a new role in school bus operation. To increase child safety and security, alarm systems have been developed to prevent children from being left on unattended school buses overnight. To track drivers who illegally pass school buses loading and unloading students, in the 2010s, some school buses began to adopt exterior cameras synchronized with the deployment of the exterior stop arms. Onboard GPS tracking devices have taken on a dual role of fleet management and location tracking, allowing for internal management of costs and also to alert waiting parents and students of the real-time location of their bus. Seatbelts in school buses underwent a redesign, with lap-type seatbelts phased out in favor of 3-point seatbelts.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), school buses are the safest type of road vehicle. On average, five fatalities involve school-age children on a school bus each year; statistically, a school bus is over 70 times safer than riding to school by car. Many fatalities related to school buses are passengers of other vehicles and pedestrians (only 5% are bus occupants). Since the initial development of consistent school bus standards in 1939, many of the ensuing changes to school buses over the past eight decades have been safety related, particularly in response to more stringent regulations adopted by state and federal governments.
Ever since the adoption of yellow as a standard color in 1939, school buses deliberately integrate the concept of conspicuity into their design. When making student dropoffs or pickups, traffic law gives school buses priority over other vehicles; in order to stop traffic, they are equipped with flashing lights and a stop sign.
As a consequence of their size, school buses have a number of blind spots around the outside of the vehicle which can endanger passengers disembarking a bus or pedestrians standing or walking nearby. To address this safety challenge, a key point of school bus design is focused on exterior visibility, improving the design of bus windows, mirrors, and the windshield to optimize visibility for the driver. In the case of a collision, the body structure of a school bus is designed with an integral roll cage; as a school bus carries a large number of student passengers, a school bus is designed with several emergency exits to facilitate fast egress.
In the United States and Canada, numerous federal and state regulations require school buses to be manufactured as a purpose-built vehicle distinct from other buses. In contrast to buses in use for public transit, dedicated school buses used for student transport are all single-deck, two-axle design (multi-axle designs are no longer in use). Outside of North America, buses utilized for student transport are derived from vehicles used elsewhere in transit systems, including coaches, minibuses, and transit buses.
There are four types of school buses produced by manufacturers in North America. All school buses are of single deck design with step entry. Depending on specifications, school buses are currently designed with a seating capacity with up to 90 passengers. In the United States, school buses are restricted to a maximum width of 102 in (2.59 m) and a maximum length of 45 ft (13.7 m).
The smallest school buses are Type A (based on cutaway van chassis) with Type B (bodied on a bare chassis) serving as a larger format of small school buses. There are two formats of large school buses, including Type C (bodied on cowled medium-duty truck chassis, the most common design) and Type D (bodied on bare “forward control” or “pusher” chassis; the largest school buses).
School bus configurations Format name Type A Type B Type C Type D Description (cutaway van) (integrated/conventional) (conventional) (transit-style) GVWR Type A-I ≤ 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) ≥ 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) Type A-II ≥ 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) Driver’s door Yes (derived from van cab) No Entrance door location Behind front wheels Ahead of front wheels Passenger capacity
>10 (12-30) > 10 (24-36) >10 (54-78) > 10 (72-90) Engine location Front Front
(beneath windshield and beside driver)
Front Front or rear
(midship out of production)
IC Bus RE-Series
In both public and private education systems, outside of school buses in regular route service, there are two other types of school buses used in student transport, distinguished largely by their usage and markings.
An “activity bus” is a school bus used for providing transportation for students. In place of home to school route service, an activity bus is used for the purpose of extracurricular activities. Depending on individual state and provincial regulations, the bus used for this purpose can either be a regular yellow school bus or a dedicated unit for this purpose. Dedicated activity buses, while not painted yellow, are fitted with the similar interiors as well as the same traffic control devices for dropping off students (at other schools); conversely, it cannot be used in regular route service.
A Multi-Function School Activity Bus (MFSAB) is a bus intended for use in both the private sector and the educational system. Designed as an alternative for 15-passenger vans, MFSABs are typically derived from Type A school buses (though also allowed from full-size buses as well), giving a safety advantage over automotive-based vehicles. Intended for point-to-point transportation, MFSABs are not fitted with traffic control devices (i.e., red warning lights, stop arm) nor are they painted school bus yellow. For educational use, MFSABs are primarily used for extracurricular activities requiring transportation; in the private sector, they are typically purchased by child-care centers.
To specifically identify them as such, purpose-built school buses are painted a specific shade of yellow, designed to optimize their visibility for other drivers. In addition to “School Bus” signage in the front and rear above the window line, vehicles are marked with the name of the operator (school district or bus contractor) and an identification number.
Yellow was adopted as a standard color for North American school buses beginning in 1939. In April of that year, Frank W. Cyr, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, organized a meeting to establish national school bus construction standards, including the adoption of a standard shade of paint. The color which became known as “school bus yellow” was selected because black lettering on that specific hue was easiest to see in the semi-darkness of early morning and late afternoon. Officially, school bus yellow was designated “National School Bus Chrome”; following the removal of lead from the pigment, its current name is “National School Bus Glossy Yellow“.
Outside the United States and Canada, while it is not a government specification, the association of yellow with school buses has led to its use (in part or in whole) on school-use buses worldwide. Some areas establishing school transport services have conducted evaluations of American yellow-style school buses; to better suit local climate conditions, other governments have established their own color requirements, favoring other high-visibility colors (such as white or orange).
School buses often operate in low-visibility conditions, such as early morning, or in poor weather, as well as in rural areas. While their yellow paint color does make them more conspicuous than other vehicles, darkness can make them hard to see. To improve their visibility, many state and provincial governments (for example, Colorado) require the use of yellow reflective tape on school buses.
Marking the length, width, height, and in some cases, identifying the bus as a school bus, reflective tape makes the vehicle easier to see in low light, also marking all emergency exits (so rescue personnel can quickly find them in darkness).
The equivalent requirement in Canada is almost identical; the only difference is that red cannot be used as a retroreflective color.
To comply with federal and state requirements, school buses are equipped with a number of safety devices to prevent accidents and injuries and for the purposes of security.
A key priority for a bus driver when driving, as well as when loading and unloading students, is proper sightlines around their vehicle; the blind spots formed by the school bus can be a significant risk to bus drivers and traffic as well as pedestrians. In the United States, approximately ⅔ of students killed outside of the school bus are not struck by other vehicles, but by their own bus.
To combat this problem, school buses are specified with sophisticated and comprehensive mirror systems. In redesigns of school bus bodies, driver visibility and overall sightlines have become important considerations. In comparison to school buses from the 1980s, school buses from the 2000s have much larger windscreens and fewer blind spots.
For the purposes of evacuation, in addition to the main entry door, school buses are equipped with a minimum of at least one emergency exit. The rear-mounted emergency exit door is a design feature adopted from horse-drawn wagons (the entrance was rear-mounted to avoid disturbing the horses); in rear-engine school buses, the door is replaced by an exit window mounted above the engine compartment (supplemented by a side-mounted exit door). Additional exits may be located in the roof (roof hatches), window exits, and/or side emergency exit doors. All are opened by the use of quick-release latches which activate an alarm.
The number of emergency exits in a school bus depends on the size of the bus (its seating capacity) along with individual state regulations; Kentucky requires the most, with each full-size school bus having a total of eight emergency exits in addition to the entry door. Kentucky also requires an 8″ black band on each side of the bus, with the district’s name in white letters. For example, you’ll see SCHOOLS or INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS in white letters on the black band. It makes seeing the name of the district easier.
Since the 1990s, video cameras have become common equipment installed inside school buses. While primarily used to monitor and record passenger behavior, video cameras have also been used in the investigation of accidents involving school buses. On March 28, 2000, a Murray County, Georgia, school bus was hit by a CSX freight train at an unsignaled railroad crossing; three children were killed. The bus driver claimed to have stopped and looked for approaching trains before proceeding across the tracks, as is required by law, but the onboard camera recorded that the bus had in fact not stopped.
As VHS cameras have been phased out in favor of digital recording technology, a single camera has been replaced by a multiple-camera system, allowing surveillance from multiple vantage points. In the 2010s, exterior-mounted cameras synchronized with the stop arms photograph vehicles that illegally pass the bus when its stop arm and warning lights are in use (thus committing a moving violation).
In contrast to cars and other light-duty passenger vehicles, school buses are not typically equipped with active restraint systems, such as seat belts; whether seat belts should be a requirement has been a topic of controversy. Since the 1970s, school buses have adopted the concept of compartmentalization as a passive restraint system.
According to the National Highway Transportation Association (NHTSA), studies completed previously on school buses showed that due to their size and heaviness, school buses did not require that safety belts be in place. Information gathered in previous studies showed that a size of a bus, combined with the design of the seat and the material the in the space between the seats themselves, showed that there was no need of safety belts on a school bus. A bus is larger and heavier than a normal size passenger vehicle and could distribute the force of the crash evenly. Combined with the space between the seats as well as the design prevented serious injuries from happening. This information, however, does not carry over to a small bus. Buses weighing less than ten thousand pounds do need to have safety belts in place. The reason for this is smaller size. However, recent accidents involving school buses that have caused serious if not fatal injuries has caused the National Transportation Board to conduct new tests to check the legitimacy of this continued practice. After completing these tests due to the bus accidents in 2016, they have recommended that new buses being built need to have both a lap and shoulder harness in place. They have also recommended that 42 states add seat belts as a requirement. There are some states that have already added the lap belt. This study made the NTSB recommend adding shoulder harnesses to those states that already have a lap belt in place.
In 1967 and 1972, as part of an effort to improve crash protection in school buses, UCLA researchers played a role in the future of school bus interior design. Using the metal-backed seats then in use as a means of comparison, several new seat designs were researched in crash testing. In its conclusion, the UCLA researchers found that the safest design was a 28-inch high padded seatback spaced a maximum of 24 inches apart, using the concept of compartmentalization as a passive restraint. While the UCLA researchers found the compartmentalized seats to be the safest design, they found active restraints (such as seatbelts) to be next in terms of importance of passenger safety. In 1977, FMVSS 222 mandated a change to compartmentalized seats, though the height requirement was lowered to 24 inches. According to the NTSB, the main disadvantage of passive-restraint seats is its lack of protection in side-impact collisions (with larger vehicles) and rollover situations. Though by design, students are protected front to back by compartmentalization, it allows the potential for ejection in other crash situations (however rare).
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 222 was introduced in 1977, requiring passive restraints and more stringent structural integrity standards; this exempted the requirement of seatbelts in school buses with a gross vehicle weight (GVWR) of over 10,000 pounds. In 2011, FMVSS 222 was revised; to improve occupant protection in small (Type A) school buses, three-point seatbelts were required in new Type A school buses; the revision introduced testing standards for bus seats with 3-point seatbelts and anchor points for the optional installation of these seat-belt systems in large school buses. While previously reducing capacity by up to one-third, NHTSA recognized new technology that allows using seatbelts for either three small (elementary-age) children or two larger children (high-school age) per seat. In October 2013, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) most recently stated at their annual transportation conference (NAPT) that they now fully support three-point lap-shoulder seat belts on school buses.
In July 2004, California became the first state to require three-point lap/shoulder seat belts on all new Type A small school buses. A year later, this requirement was extended to large Type C and Type D school buses. Texas had planned a voluntary adoption of seat belts in newly purchased large school buses by 2010, with the state reimbursing school districts for the additional costs. However, due to budget cuts, only 36% of the planned funding was allocated for the extra costs As of 2015, they are a requirement in at least five states: California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Of the states that equip buses with two-point lap seat belts (Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York), only New Jersey requires seat belt usage by riders. In other states, it is up to the district or operator whether to require riders to use them or not.
School bus manufacture
In most cases, school bus body companies function as second stage manufacturers. Some school buses (typically those of Type D configuration) are produced with both body and chassis from the same manufacturer.
In 2018, 44,381 school buses were sold in North America (compared to 31,194 in 2010). Approximately 70% of production is of Type C configuration.
Production (North America)
In the United States and Canada, school buses are currently produced by nine different manufacturers. Four of them—Collins Industries, Starcraft Bus, Trans Tech, and Van Con — specialize exclusively in small buses. Thomas Built Buses and Blue Bird Corporation (the latter, through its Micro Bird joint venture with Girardin)—produce both small and large buses. IC Bus and Lion Electric produce full-size buses exclusively.
Founded in 2011, Lion Electric Company (in French, La Compagnie Électrique Lion) is a Quebec-based manufacturer that specializes in the development of fully electric vehicles; the company produces bodies on cowled chassis supplied by Spartan Motors. In the 20th century, Canada was home to satellite facilities of several U.S. firms (Blue Bird, Thomas, Wayne). At the time, to meet demand in both countries, Canadian-produced school buses were exported to the United States (and Canada imported buses from the United States). Domestically, the Quebec-based firm Corbeil manufactured full-size and small school buses from 1985 to 2007. Following its acquisition by Collins, Corbeil served as its Canadian brand from 2008 to 2016.
Every year in the United States and Canada, school buses provide an estimated 8 billion student trips from home and school. Each school day in 2015, nearly 484,000 school buses transported 26.9 million children to and from school and school-related activities; over half of the United States K–12 student population is transported by school bus. Outside North America, purpose-built vehicles for student transport are less common. Depending on location, students ride to school on transit buses (on school-only routes), coaches, or a variety of other buses.
While school bus operations vary widely by location, in the United States and Canada, school bus services operate independent of public transport, with their own bus stops and schedules, coordinated with school class times.
In the United States, school bus drivers are required to hold a CDL. In addition to a P (passenger) endorsement, school bus drivers must acquire a separate S (school bus) endorsement; along with a written and driving test, the endorsement requires a background check and sex offender registry check.
School buses are generally considered Class B vehicles, requiring its namesake endorsement (alongside the standard passenger endorsement), but the highest-capacity versions require a Class A license (based on their higher GVWR).
Loading and unloading
In contrast with transit buses, school buses are equipped with a single entry door at the front of the bus. While school buses can carry more passengers (a full-size school bus, from 66 to 90) than other rigid buses of similar length, the use of multiple bus stops allows for the loading or unloading of several students, with the stop at school the only time the bus loads or unloads its passengers at once.
Several configurations of entry doors are used on school buses, including center-hinged (jack-knife) and outward-opening. Prior to the 2000s, doors operated manually by the driver were the most common, with air or electric-assist becoming nearly universal in current vehicles.
To inhibit pedestrians from walking into the blind spot created by the hood (or lower bodywork, on Type D buses), crossing arms are safety devices that extend outward from the front bumper when the bus is stopped for loading or unloading. By design, these force passengers to walk forward several feet forward of the bus (into the view of the driver) before they can cross the road in front of the bus.
In the past, handrails in the entry way posed a potential risk for to students; as passengers exited a bus, items such as drawstrings or other loose clothing could be caught if the driver was unaware and pulled away with the student caught in the door. To minimize this risk, school bus manufacturers have redesigned handrails and equipment in the stepwell area. In its School Bus Handrail Handbook, the NHTSA described a simple test procedure for identifying unsafe stepwell handrails.
In contrast to transit and intercity buses, when loading and unloading students, school buses have the ability to stop traffic, using a system of warning lights and stop arms-a stop sign than is deployed from the bus to stop traffic.
By the mid-1940s, most U.S. states introduced traffic laws requiring motorists to stop for school buses while children were loading or unloading. The justifications for this protocol were:
- Children (especially younger ones) have normally not yet developed the mental capacity to fully comprehend the hazards and consequences of street-crossing, and under U.S. tort laws, a child cannot legally be held accountable for negligence. For the same reason, adult crossing guards often are deployed in walking zones between homes and schools.
- It is impractical in many cases to avoid children crossing the traveled portions of roadways after leaving a school bus or to have an adult accompany them.
- The size of a school bus generally limits visibility for both the children and motorists during loading and unloading.
Since at least the mid-1970s, all U.S. states and Canadian provinces and territories have some sort of school bus traffic stop law; although each jurisdiction requires traffic to stop for a school bus loading and unloading passengers, different jurisdictions have different requirements of when to stop. Outside of North America, the school bus stopping traffic to unload and load children is not provided for. Instead of being given traffic priority, fellow drivers are encouraged to drive with extra caution around school buses.
Warning lights and stop arms
Around 1946, the first system of traffic warning signal lights on school buses was used in Virginia, consisting of a pair of sealed beam lights. Instead of colorless glass lenses (similar to car headlamps), the warning lamps utilized red lenses. A motorized rotary switch applied power alternately to the red lights mounted at the left and right of the front and rear of the bus, creating a wig-wag effect. Activation was typically through a mechanical switch attached to the door control. However, on some buses (such as Gillig’s Transit Coach models and the Kenworth-Pacific School Coach) activation of the roof warning lamp system was through the use of a pressure-sensitive switch on a manually controlled stop paddle lever located to the left of the driver’s seat below the window. Whenever the pressure was relieved by extending the stop paddle, the electric current was activated to the relay. In the 1950s, plastic lenses were developed for the warning lenses, though the warning lights (with colorless glass lenses) used sealed-beam lamps into the mid-2000s, when light-emitting diodes (LEDs) came into use.
The warning lamps initially used for school buses consisted of four red warning lights. With the adoption of FMVSS 108 in January 1968, four additional warning lights were gradually added to school buses; these were amber in color and mounted inboard of the red warning lights. Intended to signal an upcoming stop to drivers, as the entry door was opened at the stop, they were wired to be overridden by the red lights and the stop sign. Although 8-light systems were adopted by many states and provinces during the 1970s and 1980s, the all-red systems remain in use by some locales such as Saskatchewan and Ontario, Canada, older buses from California, as well as on buses built in Wisconsin before 2005.
To aid visibility of the bus in inclement weather, school districts and school bus operators add flashing strobe lights to the roof of the bus. Some states (for example, Illinois) require strobe lights as part of their local specifications.
During the early 1950s, states began to specify a mechanical stop signal arm which the driver would deploy from the left side of the bus to warn traffic of a stop in progress. The portion of the stop arm protruding in front of traffic was initially a trapezoidal shape with stop painted on it. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration‘s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 131 regulates the specifications of the stop arm as a double-faced regulation octagonal red stop sign at least 45 cm (17.7 in) across, with white border and uppercase legend. It must be retroreflective and/or equipped with alternately flashing red lights. As an alternative, thestop legend itself may also flash; this is commonly achieved with red LEDs. FMVSS 131 stipulates that the stop signal arm be installed on the left side of the bus, and placed so that when it is extended, the arm is perpendicular to the side of the bus, with the top edge of the sign parallel to and within 6 inches (15 cm) of a horizontal plane tangent to the bottom edge of the first passenger window frame behind the driver’s window, and that the vertical center of the stop signal arm must be no more than 9 inches (23 cm) from the side of the bus. One stop signal arm is required; a second may also be installed. The second stop arm, when it is present, is usually mounted near the rear of the bus, and is not permitted to bear astop or any other legend on the side facing forward when deployed.
The Canadian standard, defined in Canada Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 131, is substantially identical to the U.S. standard. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the use of stop signal arms is banned under traffic bylaws in multiple cities, citing that they provide a false sense of safety to students by encouraging jaywalking in front of the bus rather than safely crossing at an intersection. These bans have been the subject of public debate in cities such as Regina and Prince Albert.
School buses and the environment
In theory, school buses affect pollution in the same manner as carpooling; on average, each school bus transports the same number of students as 36 vehicles separately. While busing transports students on a much larger scale than by car, the use n compared to biking or walking).
As of 2017, over 90% of school buses in North America are powered by diesel-fueled engines. While the design offers higher fuel efficiency over gasoline, health problems related to exposure from diesel exhaust fumes have become a concern. Since the early to mid-2000s, emissions standards for diesel engines have been upgraded considerably; a school bus meeting 2017 emissions standards is 60 times cleaner than a school bus from 2002 (and approximately 3,600 times cleaner than a counterpart from 1990). To comply with upgraded standards and regulations, diesel engines have been redesigned to use ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel with selective catalytic reduction becoming a common emissions control strategy.
Although diesel fuel is most commonly used in large school buses (and even in many smaller ones), alternatives such as LPG/propane and CNG have been developed to counter the drawbacks that diesel and gasoline-fueled school buses pose to the public health and environment.
The use of propane as a fuel for school buses began in the 1970s, largely as a response to the 1970s energy crisis. Initially produced as conversions of gasoline engines (as both require spark ignition), propane fell out of favor in the 1980s as fuel prices stabilized, coupled with the wider usage of diesel engines. In the late 2000s, propane-fueled powertrains reentered production, as emissions regulations began to negatively affect the performance of diesel engines. In 2009, Blue Bird Corporation introduced a version of the Blue Bird Vision powered by a LPG-fuel engine. As of 2018, three manufacturers offer a propane-fuel full-size school bus (Blue Bird, IC, and Thomas), along with Ford and General Motors Type A chassis.
Compressed natural gas was first introduced for school buses in the early 1990s (with Blue Bird building its first CNG bus in 1991 and Thomas building its first in 1993) As of 2018, CNG is offered by two full-size bus manufacturers (Blue Bird, Thomas) along with Ford and General Motors Type A chassis.
In a reversal from the 1990s, gasoline became an alternative-fuel offering in 2016, allowing for simpler emissions equipment over diesel engines.
Electric school buses
In theory, urban and suburban routes prove advantageous for the use of an electric bus; charging can be achieved before and after the bus is transporting students (when the bus is parked). In the early 1990s, several prototype models of battery-powered buses were developed as conversions of existing school buses; these were built primarily for research purposes.
During the 2000s, school bus electrification shifted towards the development of diesel-electric hybrid school buses. Intended as a means to minimize engine idling while loading/unloading passengers and increasing diesel fuel economy, hybrid school buses failed to gain widespread acceptance. A key factor in their market failure was their high price (nearly twice the price of a standard diesel school bus) to and hybrid system complexity.
In the 2010s, several fully electric school buses would enter the marketplace. Trans Tech Bus would produce two designs, the eTrans (based on the Smith Electric Newton cabover truck), and the SST-e, a conversion of the Ford E-Series. Lion Bus introduced the eLion conventional, the first full-size electric school bus, in 2015. In 2017, several manufacturers added electric school buses to their product ranges, with electric versions of the Blue Bird All American, Blue Bird Vision, Micro Bird G5 on ford E450 Chassis, IC CE-Series, and Thomas Saf-T-Liner C2 making their debut for future production. During 2018, Blue Bird, Thomas, and IC introduced prototypes of full-size school buses intended for production; Blue Bird intends to offer electric-power versions of its entire product line.
Outside of student transport itself, the design of a school bus is adapted for use for a variety of applications. Along with new vehicles, conversions of retired school buses see a large range of uses. Qualities desired from school buses involve sturdy construction (as school buses have an all-steel body and frame), a large seating capacity, and wheelchair lift capability, among others.
Churches throughout the United States and Canada use buses to transport members of their congregation, both to church services and to church events. In this capacity, many churches use vehicles derived from school buses. While some vehicles are purchased second-hand, other vehicles are new; other churches also own minibuses, often equipped with wheelchair lifts.
In nearly all examples, church bus livery is dictated by federal regulations, which require the removal of “School Bus” lettering and the disabling/removal of stop arms/warning lights. In some states, School Bus Yellow must be painted over entirely.
In church use, transporting adults and/or children, traffic law no longer gives church buses traffic priority in most states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia being the only states where a church bus can stop traffic with flashing red lights).
In terms of vehicles used for community outreach, school bus bodyshells (both new and second-hand) see use as bookmobiles and mobile blood donation centers (bloodmobiles), among other uses. Bookmobiles feature interior shelving for books and library equipment; bloodmobiles feature mobile phlebotomy stations and blood storage.
Both types of vehicles spend long periods of time parked in the same place; to reduce fuel consumption, they often power interior equipment and climate control with an on-board generator in place of the chassis engine.
Larger police agencies may own police buses for a number of purposes derived from school bus bodies. Along with buses with high-capacity seating serving as officer transports (in large-scale deployments), other vehicles derived from buses may have little seating, serving as temporary mobile command centers; these vehicles are built from school bus bodyshells and fitted with agency-specified equipment.
Prisoner transport vehicles are high-security vehicles used to transport prisoners; a school bus bodyshell is fitted with a specially designed interior and exterior with secure windows and doors.
Uses of retired school buses
As of 2016, the average age of a school bus in the United States is 9.3 years. School buses can be retired from service due to a number of factors, including vehicle age or mileage, mechanical condition, emissions compliance, or any combination of these factors. In some states and provinces, school bus retirement is called for at specific age or mileage intervals, regardless of mechanical condition. In recent years, budget concerns in many publicly funded school districts have necessitated that school buses be kept in service longer.
When a school bus is retired from school use, it can see a wide variety of usage. While a majority are scrapped for parts and recycling (a requirement in some states), better-running examples are put up for sale as surplus vehicles. Second-hand school buses are sold to such entities as churches, resorts or summer camps; others are exported to Central America, South America, or elsewhere. Other examples of retired school buses are preserved and restored by collectors and bus enthusiasts; collectors and museums have an interest in older and rarer models. Additionally, restored school buses appear alongside other period vehicles in television or film.
When a school bus is sold for usage outside of student transport, NHTSA regulations require that its identification as a school bus be removed. To do so, all school bus lettering must be removed or covered while the exterior must be painted a color different than school bus yellow; the stop arm(s) and warning lamps must be removed or disabled.
School bus conversions
In retirement, not all school buses live on as transport vehicles. In contrast, the purchasers of school buses use the large body and chassis to use as either a working vehicle, or as a basis to build a rolling home. To build a utility vehicle for farms, owners often remove much of the roof and sides, creating a large flatbed or open-bed truck for hauling hay. Other farms use unconverted, re-painted, school buses to transport their workforce.
Skoolies are retired school buses converted into recreational vehicles (the term also applies to their owners and enthusiasts). Constructed and customized by their owners; while some examples have primitive accommodations, others rival the features of production RVs. Exteriors vary widely, including only the removal of school bus lettering, conservative designs, or the bus equivalent of an art car.
An example of a school bus converted to an RV is the 1946 International Harvester school bus abandoned on the Stampede Trail in Alaska where Christopher McCandless lived and died in 1992 (often referred to as the “Magic School Bus”).
School bus export
Retired school buses from Canada and the United States are sometimes exported to Africa, Central America, South America, or elsewhere. Used as public transportation between communities, these buses are nicknamed “chicken buses” for both their crowded accommodation and the (occasional) transportation of livestock alongside passengers. To attract passengers (and fares), yellow buses are often repainted with flamboyant exterior color schemes and modified with chrome exterior trim.
Around the world
Outside the United States and Canada, the usage and design of buses for student transport varies worldwide. In Europe, Asia, and Australia, buses utilized for student transport may be derived from standard transit buses. Alongside differences in body, chassis, and seating design, school buses outside North America differ primarily in their signage, livery, and traffic priority.
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