Perils of the journey to school
School buses are one of the primary means of transportation for students. Over 24 million students report using the 440,000 available public school buses each year.  However, students’ safety is often at risk during this daily travel from home to school, and vice versa. Over 800 students die and 152,000 are injured annually while traveling to and from school; this figure does not even include special trips or other school-related journeys.  Safer transportation options for students must be presented, and one school district is stepping up to this call for action.
Leveraging digitization to create safer transportation for students
Serving roughly 7,000 students in Ohio, Youngstown City School District embarked on a mission this school year to “enhance safety and accountability” in its transportation system. Their goal is simple: “We want to be able to account for every child, every day, on every bus at every bus stop, and to provide a safe bus.” 
To achieve this mission, the district has adopted two key pieces of technology. First, the district acquired the Tyler Telematic GPS system earlier this year. Built into each school bus, this technology integrates with the district’s global positioning system. It showcases the location of each school bus and issues a “driver report card as far as their speed, their braking and their driving habits in general.”  This can be used to monitor each bus driver and ensure safe driving behavior is rewarded and unsafe behavior is remedied.
The Tyler Telematic GPS system feeds into the Versatrans My Stop App, which the district launched during the summer. Through this smartphone application or its web browser equivalent, parents are able to look up a real-time estimated arrival time of a school bus at their designated bus stop by searching their child’s name and date of birth. This will prevent children from waiting for a school bus without adult supervision for prolonged periods of time, which is critical because reports estimate that roughly 38 percent of “attempted abductions” occurred while a child was heading to school.  Furthermore, drivers have been given electronic tablets that specify the children to be picked up at each stop on their route. This enables drivers to account for their passengers and ensures children aren’t accidentally on the wrong bus.
Are self-driving school buses the future?
While investing in current infrastructure to enhance safety is important, it’s equally necessary to explore other recent developments such as autonomous vehicles. The Pew Research Center uncovered that 39 percent of parents were “very or somewhat enthusiastic about driverless vehicle development for school buses.”  Teague, a technology-focused design firm, developed a “futuristic self-driving pod” to replace the modern school bus.
These pods are designed to combat the notorious “danger zone” problem: students face the highest risk of injury when the bus is loading or unloading. In 2016, four students were killed in these accidents.  Self-driving pods are small and can only seat six students, but this is by design because the pods will drop students off right in front of their house. This eliminates the danger zone risk by preventing children from crossing the street at all. It also limits the fear of traditional kidnapping by dismantling the need for a “bus stop and spoke-and-hub routing network.”
Remembering the mission: safety
As the quest to improve the transportation process for students continues, the district should prioritize the safety of students, not the efficiency of transportation, as the primary mission. While autonomous vehicles sound ideal theoretically, they pose new risks, particularly concerns of cyber-security. These vehicles may be an “irresistible target for a hacker . . . warns cyber security expert Eddie Schwartz.”  Moreover, autonomous vehicles are currently being built for fair weather, and technologists have not discovered how to reliably operate in more tumultuous environments such as heavy rain, excess snow, or unpaved roads.
When evaluating transportation investment decisions going forward, the district should consider:
- Does this transportation decision optimize for efficiency or safety?
- How can current school buses adopt other existing technologies, such as video cameras with facial recognition, to help keep children safe but mitigate the room for human error (i.e. students forgetting their Z+ wallet or a driver accidentally moving when a child is in the “danger zone” area around the vehicle)?
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