History of the School Bus

Your parents and grandparents have told you stories of walking miles to get to school – uphill both ways of course. Today, most kids take the school bus. In fact, school buses transport 26 million US students every year. Here's a look back at how schools buses have evolved over the years and why they're considered one of the safest forms of transportation on the roads.

Timeline of School Bus Design

Late 19th Century: In the 1880s, "kid hacks" weren't ways to solve your biggest parenting problems – they were the early version of the school bus. Some hacks were repurposed farm wagons, and some were specially built to transport people, with bench-style seating on the perimeter. They were pulled by horses, and to avoid scaring the animals, kids used the back of the vehicle to enter and exit.

The use of hacks wasn't widespread, however, and many kids at that time still walked to school, used farm wagons, or rode on sledges (a vehicle on runners, normally pulled by draft animals).


Early 20th Century: In 1914, there were more cars on the road, and school buses went horseless. The design of the vehicles remained about the same, with wood construction, seating on the perimeter, and a door in the rear. Furthermore, the buses weren't weatherproof, with only a tarp stretched over the passenger seating.


The 1930s: In the 1930s, school buses became their own, distinct vehicles, instead of adapted versions of wagons, carriages, or trucks. Wayne Works (one of the longest-running school bus manufacturers), introduced the first all-steel school bus body design with safety glass, and the entry door moved from the back of the bus to the front.

In 1939, a conference was organized at the University of Manhattan to develop school bus standards. At the end of the conference, 44 national standards had been established. One of them was that all school buses should be "national school bus glossy yellow." The color was chosen because it's registered by the human eye faster than any other color. It's seen in a person's peripheral vision 1.24 times faster than the color red. Yellow is also highly visible in the early morning and evening light, times when school buses operate. By 1974, all school buses in the United States were painted "school bus glossy yellow."

Mid-late 20th Century: In the years following WWII, several factors lead to an increase in school bus production and safety innovations. One-room school houses essentially disappeared in rural areas, and smaller schools began to consolidate. The new, larger schools were located farther apart and busing became a necessity.

Then, during the 1970s, several cities were court-ordered to bus students in to integrate schools, and this required the use of even more school buses. The same decade ushered in some important safety developments.

School Bus Safety

School bus safety came to the forefront in the 1970s. Some states began to use amber warning lamps to indicate to drivers that a school bus is getting ready to drop off students. In addition, in an effort to further prevent drivers from passing a stopped school bus, flashing lights were added to buses' stop arms.

In the late 1960s, rollover crash tests proved that body joints (where school bus panels and pieces join together) were a structural weak point. In response, manufacturers began implementing designs that reduced body joints.

This focus on structural integrity influenced new requirements in the U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for School Buses. Most of these requirements went into effect on April 1, 1977. Among the improvements was something called "compartmentalization."

Why Don't School Buses Have Seatbelts?

The seating on school buses follows a "compartmentalization" model and is designed to keep kids safe even though they're not wearing seatbelts.

boy on school bus

Compartmentalization consists of a few different elements:

  • School bus seats are higher off the ground so that most opposing vehicles are below the kids' feet.
  • The four-inch cushioned seats and high seat backs create a compartment for students in the event of an accident.
  • Seats are closer together than in most vehicles, creating even more of a safe zone.
  • There are no windshields or doors close to riders in an effort to prevent ejection from the bus.
  • Passenger windows are placed higher above students' heads than in typical vehicles.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Academy of Sciences have both conducted studies that concluded that this type of seating is effective enough to protect children when there's an accident. Mile per mile, school bus fatalities happen at 1/7 the average rate of all other auto accidents.

Of course, compartmentalization may have little effect in the event of a rollover accident, but safety experts aren't sure seatbelts would be sufficiently effective. They say there is some evidence that the number of injuries may actually increase if school buses used seatbelts because the belts themselves can hurt children.

The only exception to the no seatbelt rule is in buses under 10,000 pounds. These vehicles must have lap or lap/shoulder belts because they are closer in size and weight to passenger cars.

School Bus Driver Safety and Training

One of the most important safety components of school bus safety has nothing to do with the vehicle itself, but with the person who's driving it.

In 1986, school bus drivers across the United States became required to obtain a commercial driver's license with the signing of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This ensured that drivers of all large vehicles had consistent training across the country.

Most states, including Pennsylvania, require school bus drivers to be 18 years of age. Other states have an age requirement of 19 or 21. Driver training ranges from eight to 40 hours of classroom time and eight to 12 hours of on-the-road training.

School buses have also been designed to help drivers keep students as safe as possible. To increase loading zone visibility, the driver's position was moved up, out, and forward in the 1980s and 1990s and windshields were made bigger. During this time, the ergonomics of the driver's compartment were also improved. Controls and switches were moved to places that are easier to reach to reduce driver distractions.

Finally, approximately 2/3 of students killed outside of the school bus are struck by their own bus. School buses are now made with complicated and comprehensive mirror systems to reduce the number of blind spots so that kids are more easily seen when they enter and exit the vehicle.

Accidents Happen Every Day

Even the most extensive safety measures can't prevent all accidents. There are simply some things that are out of your control. This feels especially true when you're the innocent victim of an auto accident. That's why we're here – to help you get a handle on the things you can control after an accident so you can move forward.

We're available 24/7, so feel free to get in touch.

Sources:“School Bus.” August 6, 2015.“Transportation and School Busing – The School Bus, History of Pupil Transportation, Issues in Pupil Transportation.” August 7. 2015.“Why School Buses Are Yellow.” Business Insider. November 12, 2013.Photo Credit:“School Bus History in Photos.” August 14, 2015.“Sledge on the Road.” Nicolae Ionescu [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 1923-1935.

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