By Sue Botos
From the outside, the appearance of yellow school buses hasn’t changed much over the years. But a look behind the scenes reveals a high-tech operation with the goal of transporting students as safely and efficiently as possible.
In Rocky River, this responsibility is overseen by the district’s new transportation supervisor, Erin Peacock, whose fleet of 24 buses carries 2,500 to 2,700 students to the city’s public schools, plus nine near-by private schools, each day.
“We try to make the route flow as smoothly as possible,” said Peacock, who has worked for the Berea and Westlake schools. In the bus business for 14 years, she said that routing is one of the areas where she has seen the greatest technological impact.
“We used to get a big city map and put pins where all the students lived. Then we ran strings through the pins to make the routes,” Peacock explained to a visitor at the district’s transportation nerve center. While the creation of routes is still referred to as pinning, a computer program is now fed information and comes up with bus routes.
Pulling up the color-coded street map for Goldwood Primary School on her computer, Peacock explained that the routes still need a little manual manipulation to tailor the programs to the district’s individual needs.
“One of the biggest challenges is trying to cut back and remain efficient and still maintain the custom bus service of living in a suburb,” Peacock stated. She said that the state requires detailed reports of mileage and number of students served. On average, Rocky River buses roll up 70,000 miles annually, plus an additional 40,000 for field trips, while getting about 6 mpg of gas.
Trying to divert as little general fund money to transportation is another challenge faced by Peacock’s department. She said a new bus costs $77,000. “We try to keep them between 10 to 12 years, and we always replace two every year,” Peacock noted. She added that older busses are shifted to shorter routes to extend their lives. Various cash-saving measures, such as membership in the Ohio School Council consortium and purchase of newer used buses from other districts, are also used.
Aside from efficiency, safety is the other major priority when dealing with school transportation. A look inside a bus shows what Peacock called a “containment system” with high-backed seats close together. She said the arrangement would keep students restrained during a collision. In addition, buses have reinforced crossbeams, and chassis are designed to separate from the passenger compartments to avoid rollovers.
To keep tabs on what goes on inside the bus, digital cameras are positioned at the front, rear and bus door. Peacock said this does much to help nip any bullying situations in the bud. “The students are separated and the building principals are notified. They are on it right away,” she stated.
In addition, Peacock said the Zonar computer system ensures drivers are safely doing their job. Before each run, drivers use a hand-held device to inspect their bus, then, while on the road, speed lights and braking are monitored. “We can tell if a driver comes to a full stop at stop signs,” she commented.
After the run, the driver must walk to the back of the bus and place the hand-held computer to a diode at the back of the bus to indicate that the vehicle has been searched and no children or other objects have been left behind.
Noting that Oct. 21-25 is National School Bus Week, Peacock commented, “Our theme is ‘Stand Back From the Yellow and Black.’” She explained that the 10-foot radius around a school bus is a danger zone because even with mirrors, children are in the driver’s blind spot. “That’s why we have them go to a place of safety (leaving the bus) where the driver can see them, and wait for the bus to leave.
Peacock, who occasionally gets behind the wheel herself, said that the district is continually working on improving bus safety. “This is precious cargo,” she stated.