Changes to school bus target comfort, safety

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School bus yellow is still the same color, but a ride to school has become safer and more stylish in the past 20 years.

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Shop foreman Roger Boatwright speaks about the differences between a 1985 school bus and a 1995 school bus at the Aiken Bus Shop.  Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Shop foreman Roger Boatwright speaks about the differences between a 1985 school bus and a 1995 school bus at the Aiken Bus Shop.

In South Carolina and Georgia, buses still have a similar design, but updates have given today's students a more comfortable ride.

Since the 1990s, model updates include white roofs for more visibility and a cooler interior; LED (light emitting diode) lighting so buses are visible even in the darkest conditions; and added safety exits, with most buses having at least eight emergency escapes.

Current models also boast extra padding and anti-lock brakes.

"We have to be on the forefront of safety before something happens," said Dewayne Porter, the Columbia County school system's director of transportation.

He said the extra padding on the seat backs and cushions have replaced metal bars in the seat backs.

"That padding absorbs the impact. Also, the back of the seat is designed to flex," he said.

Some safety and style additions remain the same in both states, but air conditioning is one feature South Carolina students likely won't be seeing soon.

It is estimated to cost an additional $8,000 for each school bus to add air conditioning. Instead, newer models include tinted windows, air vents for circulation and pop-up emergency hatches that allow the air to flow above the students.

But a Richmond County Board of Education vote will have air on new buses, which will be a welcome relief for students come August.

School board Vice President Joe Scott likened the ride on a hot school bus to "Dante's inferno," but he's pleased the board took steps to protect children from the extreme temperatures of the bus.

"It might not be too bad early in the morning, but by 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock it gets hot," Mr. Scott said. "I think it's a noble thing and a progressive thing the board decided to do."

New buses in Richmond County will have air conditioning. Ten new buses ordered last year are on the way, and 17 more buses have been approved to be ordered.

The new buses will replace the oldest buses in the regular fleet, dropping the average age from 8.9 years to 6.51 years, Director of Transportation Michael Shinn wrote in an e-mail.

School buses have also become more complex for mechanics as computer technology is integrated.

Seventeen new buses in Aiken County each will feature up to five computers.

"It takes about five to six minutes to hook it up to a laptop before we even get a reading," said Aiken bus shop foreman Roger Boatwright. "As they go down more dirt roads and get debris in the computers, I'm interested to see how it affects our routine."

He said new models are more aerodynamic, give more visibility to drivers and offer tinted windows to keep some of the sunlight out. Gauges also resemble those on a car's dashboard more than in buses from the past.

"Not a whole lot has changed as far as function, but we've just gotten up to date with modern technology," Mr. Boatwright said.

Despite new technology, the need for day-to-day maintenance is as high as ever, he said.

Summer months are busy as almost 200 Aiken County buses receive yearly maintenance check-ups, including taking off tires, changing fuels and belts and replacing broken windows and seats.

The Georgia State Patrol also inspects buses regularly each year.

County mechanics take care of changing oil and lubricating buses on a regular mileage schedule and replace tires when they wear out, Mr. Shinn said.

Mechanics also perform required monthly inspections and replace engines, transmissions, axles, brakes, radiators, heaters, windows and other parts when necessary.

Columbia County's transportation department mechanics inspect the buses in the maintenance shop every 20 working days. Drivers also perform pre- and post-trip inspections of their buses every day.

Mr. Porter said Georgia's driver training requirements have increased, and Columbia County exceeds state mandates by requiring new drivers to take 80 hours of classroom and road training.

He said drivers also must take a school bus endorsement test, a new requirement in the past couple of years that covers safety issues.

In addition, Mr. Porter said, "All school bus drivers have to go through the highway watch program."

This Homeland Security-related requirement trains drivers, who are in neighborhoods and the community every day, to recognize suspicious activities, the transportation director said.

"My goal this year is going to be to educate and train our people in a lot of different areas," he said.

He plans to offer optional training classes for new and veteran drivers in areas such as CPR and communicating with parents and students.

Mr. Porter said it is important for parents to understand bus rules and to teach them to their children.

"Getting on and off the bus is definitely the most critical part," he said.

Bus safety is important, Mr. Scott said, citing the child who died from being struck by a school bus in Columbia County in March and the Sego Middle School student who was run over by a bus in 2004.

He hopes for increased safety measures down the road, including seat belts.

"Buses can't be too safe," he said.

Mr. Porter said he sees no let-up in the demands on school bus drivers and transportation departments.

"There's more expected of school bus drivers and transportation personnel from our customers. We transport a lot of kids every day, and we travel a lot of miles. The more we do, the more people expect," he said.

Reach Julia Sellers at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106 or julia.sellers@augustachronicle.com

RICHMOND COUNTY

22,000: Students who ride the bus on an average day


45: Average number of miles driven by a bus driver a day, including trips between schools


17: New buses to be purchased


10: New buses purchased and due to arrive

COLUMBIA COUNTY

14,000: Miles traveled daily


12,000-14,000: Riders


231: Buses, ranging from eight 1991 models to a dozen 2007 models


193: Route and substitute drivers


80: Hours of training required for new drivers


34: Special-education aides


Source: Columbia County Board of Education transportation department

AIKEN COUNTY

16,797: Miles driven a day


195: Buses, including special-education buses


1985: Oldest bus year driven. 1984 was retired last school year.


17: New buses received in the county this year


Source: State Department of Education, Robert Hoffman, Aiken County Schools

BUS DETAILS

Oldest bus?


The oldest school bus in the state is from 1984. The average age of the entire fleet is 13.9 years. The state adopted a 15-year replacement policy in 2007 for school buses. In Aiken County, one bus even has almost 400,000 miles on the engine.

Why no seat belts?


In South Carolina, it would cost an additional $80 million in purchases and $39 million in upkeep to place safety belts in more than 5,600 school buses. The size of the school bus also creates a safer environment than a car. It is designed as a "passive compartmentalized" system so the interior of the bus protects passengers with padded seating and flexible and strong construction.

Why no air conditioning?


State owned buses do not come with air-conditioning and must be provided by the district at a cost of $8,000 for each bus. Instead, buses have tinted windows, a ventilation system and sun roofs to move air above students heads.

Source: State Department of Education, Robert Hoffman, Aiken County Schools

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BE-4-REAL
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Points
BE-4-REAL 07/29/07 - 08:27 am
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I think your figures for

I think your figures for richmond conty are way off .I can't see how you get an average age of buses 8.9 years to 6.51 years.
Come on let's get for real if you look ther are maybe 30 out of the richmond county fleet that fit this average. At least a 1/4 probaly are more than 16 years old. The powers at be will not get the equipment to diagnose the newer buses, computers ,software ,or any other equipment needed.They would rather send it out and pay more than the cost of the tools needed to on site. Instead they sell off equipment and then give the money to central office to use as they see fit. Not put back into the transportation department where the money originally came from the buget. And when you ask for equipment there is never any money for it. If you do get anything by the time it is approved it is obsolete and out of date .

happythoughts
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Points
happythoughts 07/29/07 - 11:34 am
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BE-4-REAL, It appears all

BE-4-REAL, It appears all fleets everywhere are having problems getting up to date. Probably lack of new buses, lack of money for new buses, equipment, and training mechanics and paying mechanics for their expertise. Management and managing the money may need to change. That is, if there was a problem. A bus has a life span of so many miles. Aiken had a good bus 1984 that probably saved them enough money they could buy several new buses, you would think it should work that way. Maybe the way they're funded it don't.

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