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The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

There’s a lot involved in getting our kids to and from school safely

Starting next week, 800-plus big yellow school buses take to Anne Arundel and Calvert county roads. Throughout Maryland, some 7,500 10-ton behemoths join the traffic flow.
    Hauling kids back and forth to 12 grades in 23 public schools in Calvert and more than 110 in Anne Arundel — all with staggered schedules — keeps school buses on the roads pretty much all day. Indeed, bus drivers work from 4am to 6pm, according to Anne Arundel County transportation administrative specialist Sharon Whitcher.
    Buses typically deliver kids to an elementary school, a middle school and a high school each morning and return them home each afternoon.
    The 576 school buses serving Anne Arundel’s public schools make 3,854 trips a day, transporting more than 59,000 students from more than 15,875 bus stops. Together they travel some 10 million miles during the school year, using 160,300 gallons of diesel fuel. Mileage averages nine to the gallon.
    The modern school bus dates back to 1914, according to That’s when, Shawn (one name only) writes, “Wayne Works dropped a wooden kid hack onto an automobile chassis.” A kid hack, by the way, is a school carriage drawn by horses, created almost a century earlier by George Shillibeer for a Quaker school in London.
    Since then, they’ve come a long way.

One School Bus Is Much Like Another
    When you’ve seen two school buses, Type C and D, you’ve seen them all, unless you have a sharp eye for design. Safety standards have brought the American school bus pretty near the Platonic ideal. The prototypical Type C is mounted on a truck chassis and has a truck’s hood and front engine and weighs between 23,000 and 29,500 pounds. Type D is the flat front-end bus, a design perfected by Albert L. Luce in 1950 in the Blue Bird All-American (though it was school bus yellow). Engines may be front, back or center in Type C buses. Type Cs are a ton or so bigger, 25,000 to 36,000 pounds. Both types come in 11- and 12-row variants. Eleven rows seat 66 students, while 12 seat 72.
    In length, buses reach 45 feet. Height is nine and a half to 11 feet and width around eight feet.
    Since 1939, all have been one color, school bus yellow, the third evolution of National School Bus Chrome by way of National School Bus Glossy Yellow.
    School buses are American made by three major manufacturers: Blue Bird, IC and Thomas Built. All meet the same stringent federal regulations plus additional state regulations.
    Like airplanes, school buses follow strict maintenance schedules. They are inspected at least four times a year, five in their 12th through 14th years of service.  When a bus turns 15, it’s retired.

“A school bus looks like just a bus,” says Steve Leonard, owner of American Bus in Annapolis. “But those are all our little eggs inside and we don’t want to jostle them.”

    “It’s about the most regulated industry of any,” says Steve Leonard, owner of American Bus in Annapolis, which sells Thomas Built buses. “A school bus looks like just a bus, but those are all our little eggs inside and we don’t want to jostle them.”
    School districts buy few buses. Most are purchased by contractors that also hire drivers and run the bus routes.
    Anne Arundel County, for example, owns only 62 buses, typically special education buses, while hiring 575 from contractors. Calvert’s 24 contractors own about 209 buses.

Safe Cartons for Our Eggs
    To keep our little eggs safe, the federal government requires 60-percent joint strength, which is achieved in part by all those rivets. Seats are upholstered with fire-blocking material and “compartmentalized” with high soft backs so jolts won’t send kids flying. Floors are finished in rubber or vinyl.
    All together, the school bus is a “pretty efficient extension of school,” Leonard says, designed for “reliability, safety and comfort.”
    Externally as well, the school bus is engineered for safety.

The iconic 1948 Bluebird bus.

    As if the standout yellow color weren’t distinct enough, federal safety rules add three horizontal black rub rails for instant recognition, so you won’t confuse a school bus with a yellow truck. External mirrors go beyond rear view to give bus drivers a 360-degree view so they can see kids at any angle. Part of every morning’s start-up routine is mirror adjustment in a drive-in template marked for visibility all the way round. A seven-foot-long front bumper crossing arm pops out when the bus stops to force kids to walk at least eight feet in front, within the driver’s line of direct vision.
    That crossing arm is one of a series of safety features that activate when the driver opens the door. At the same time, red stop lights replace yellow warning lights at each of the vehicle’s top four corners. The stop arm pops out.
    Whether you’re following a bus or heading toward it, those are your signals to stop. You’re required by law to stay stopped until the stop arm retreats. Another modern aid to safety: motion-sensing cameras to catch school bus scofflaws on camera.
    All that — plus the additional safety features required by Maryland and county school boards — sells for under $100,000.
    “Averaging the costs from the three bus manufacturers, an 11-row route bus will cost the contractor $96,924,” according to Calvert ­County’s Ed Cassidy.
    Buses transporting special needs students include more features at a higher cost. Wheelchair lift, integrated seats, air conditioning and more raise the price to $107, 574.
    What equivalent package can you get, Leonard wonders, “for $100,000 that safely transports 66 people for 12 to 15 years.”