Turning the danger zone into a safety zone

School buses are known to be the safest method of transporting kids to school – 70 times safer than travelling by car. School bus design improvements and a variety of safety products and technologies all contribute to help school buses maintain this distinction. Industry insight gathered on safety incidents involving school buses, however, shows that being outside of the bus, in the ‘Danger Zone’ poses the highest risk to children.

Early safety equipment such as stop arms, amber and red warning lights, strobes, driver LED alert signage and even the yellow paint was designed to alert motorists to stop for the school bus. Safety standards continue to be introduced to protect children in this sensitive area. Yet the bus still remarkably remains ‘invisible’. A 2019 NASDPTS survey on illegal school bus passing was conducted across 39 states in 2019. In a single day, 130,963 school bus drivers reported that 95,391 motorists had illegally passed a stopped school bus displaying flashing red lights and deployed stop arms. With approximately 471,000 school buses in service in the US, this equates to over 340,000 illegal school bus passes per day in the US and 62 million illegal passes per school year.

More recently, school bus drivers have also been able to rely on the use of cross-view mirrors, back-up cameras, crossing arms, and video surveillance systems to help improve blind spot visibility, but nearly 64 percent of the 102 school transportation-related student fatalities between 2006 and 2015 were caused by their own school bus.

We need to change our approach

We have been trying to tackle this critical issue as an industry for years. Stop arms, crossing gates, and cameras have helped to reduce the number of fatal injuries and improve safety, but to get the number of children injured or killed in school transportation-related crashes over the next decade closer to zero, we need to acknowledge that any tool or technology that relies on human attention can only accomplish so much. We could have mirrors, flashing lights, signage, and video over every inch of the bus, providing drivers with endless views and perspectives, but if at any given moment that driver is not looking at those views, he or she will be none the wiser.

Sensors provide drivers with active notifications, which is at face-value a good thing. But while sensors bring a certain value to the safety solution mix, they can also detract from it too – in the form of over-alerting with false alarms.

Mirrors and video on their own, and sensors on their own are good, but far more safety value is derived when they are all used in conjunction with one another. Together they provide the context that is critical.

Artificial intelligence is the glue that brings the value of each individual tool; mirrors, video, and sensors together to form a comprehensive view of exactly what is going on. This might come in the form of an alert that tells the driver where the problem is (for example – rear, right side of the bus) which could also be coupled with different alarms or spoken word, such as ‘child,’ or ‘car.’ This adds clarity and the ability to respond quickly and confidently.

Intelligence also reduces sensor over-detection and excessive false alarms. And just like the value of mirrors, video, and sensors being better when they are all used together, adding intelligence to the mix is better when that intelligence is not just focused on detecting, but also on developing reference. This approach to adding intelligence to safety equipment helps to identify what is important and helps to ignore what is not.

Approaching the problem from a different angle

We have developed a solution that takes a very different approach to solving these problems. Relying on the combined strengths that mirrors, video, sensors, and intelligence bring, it makes use of both a 360° camera system for a complete around vehicle view during low speed maneuvers and predictive technology that actively engages with the driver and/or students when the system deems a stop arm violation is likely to occur. The focus here on increasing driver visibility to the entire perimeter of the vehicle and  on directing the person or persons at risk rather than the traditional and longstanding approach of focusing on the external factors that contribute to the issue.

The Safe Fleet inView 360HD provides 4, 5 or 6 AHD – 1080p resolution camera views for an incredibly clear image of everything surrounding the vehicle. The Safe Fleet Predictive Stop Arm™ monitors approaching traffic and makes use of radar technology and artificial intelligence to analyze when a stop arm violation is likely to happen. The school bus driver is notified with a visual and audible alarm, and affected students are warned it might not be safe to cross with a spoken word alert projected from external speakers.

It is clear that we are on the path to having highly sophisticated, highly intelligent vehicles at our disposal. Regardless of where we are on this timeline and where this path will ultimately take us — safety needs to remain a singular focus.

Today, we are laying the groundwork for a future in which we will eventually move beyond the vehicle toward the infrastructure itself. Our cars, buses, and safety systems might just be able to talk to each another. You may just see a school bus stop arm communicating to the cars around it, and those cars will be mandated to stop, regardless of what action a driver is taking.  We are taking the first steps toward that reality by moving past working with just the driver and engaging those at risk, and by adding intelligence to vehicles.

Deirdre O’Brien serves as senior content specialist for Safe Fleet. Visit www.safefleet.net for more information.