School Buses

SIC 4151

Industry report:

This category covers establishments engaged primarily in operating buses to transport pupils to and from school. School bus establishments operated by educational institutions are considered auxiliaries. This category does not include companies offering only bus manufacturing or maintenance.

In 2009, there were 146,100 school bus drivers employed in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average hourly wage for school bus drivers in the United States was $13.91 per hour, and these drivers logged a total of about 4 billion miles a year. Figures from Dun & Bradstreet's Industry Reports showed that about 63 percent of school bus companies employed fewer than 50 people, although more than half of the industry's revenues--which totaled $2.5 billion in 2009--came from companies with more than 50 employees. As of 2010, about 26 million school children were riding school buses daily.

Largely unregulated until the latter part of the twentieth century, the school bus industry began with the manufacture of vehicles owned by individual schools and districts and developed concurrently with the automobile industry. In the late 1960s, bus companies were exposed, peripherally, to the struggle for racial integration of American schools and, more directly in the early 1970s, to the automobile safety movement led by activist Ralph Nader. In the 1990s, bus companies were subject to national and state safety legislation, and such concerns continued to be major issues for the industry throughout the 2000s. The need for seat belts on school buses, for example, was a hot topic, and as of 2010 they were required only on buses that weighed less than 5 tons, with compliance mandated by 2011. The issue of seat belts on larger buses remained in the domain of the states, and some, including Texas, mandated their use.

Safety issues largely impelled innovations in the school bus industry. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) performed ongoing research efforts into safety-related issues, including the use of seat belts, school bus stops, crashes and collisions, bus capacity, and so on. Due to such efforts and new innovations, fatalities in school bus-related accidents declined, with a 19 percent reduction in deaths from 1980 to 1990. In the 1990s, an average of 32 school-age children died in school bus accidents.

Since many fatalities occurred when buses hit riders passing through the bus driver's blind spot, some buses were being equipped with automatic "crossing gates" that swung out when the bus stopped, forcing children to walk 10 feet in front of the bus when crossing the street. Although some thought these crossing arms should be mandatory, as of 2010 they were optional features on school buses. To handle on-board safety issues, some school districts equipped school buses with on-board video cameras as a deterrent to unruly or dangerous behavior among riders. Others mounted cameras on the outside of the buses to catch law-breaking drivers that passed the bus when it was stopped or as it slowed down, signaled by flashing yellow lights, a violation in many states. The Fort Madison school district in Iowa had such a system, whereby the school bus driver pushed a button that took a picture of the violating vehicle, including the license plate number.

In 2003, the NHTSA introduced standards for a new, safer category of school bus as an alternative to the accident-prone 15-passenger van. The new category, called the "multifunction school activity bus," did not transport children between school and home but was used for school activities and other events.

In the 2000s, along with concern about pollution from other vehicles, there was great outcry over diesel emissions from school buses and their effect on children, prompting the Clean School Bus USA Program, whose goal was to eliminate unnecessary school bus idling, retrofit existing buses to use cleaner fuel, and replace the oldest buses with newer, more environmentally friendly models. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted thousands in funds to help subsidize the cost for companies and school districts to comply.

Despite all the concerns regarding school bus safety, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services pointed out that children were far more likely to be injured when they did not ride school buses than when they did.

In a more controversial development, some school districts were choosing to raise money by allowing advertisements on the sides of their school buses. For example, proponents of a bill introduced in New Jersey in 2010 claimed that it would generate $350,000 annually in revenues, a key issue for many schools in the face of massive federal budget cuts. Texas was also considering such a bill.

Other developments in the industry included the move by some to equip school buses with wireless Internet so that students could work on their homework on the ride to and from school. The Vail district in rural southern Arizona was one such school. Although more than 1,000 students had school-issued laptops, many lived in rural areas and did not have access to the Internet in their homes. Said Matt Federoff, chief information officer of the school district, "This doesn't give [students] Internet in their home, but it gives them 2 1/2 hours of access there and back."

Because most school bus providers were school districts, management often was handled from within the district. Although there were jobs in management and maintenance, drivers were by far the largest employee category. In general, drivers worked an average of 20 hours or less per week during the school year. School bus drivers were required to get a commercial driver's license from their state of residence and in some cases were subject to a background investigation for criminal misconduct or a history of mental illness. Drivers generally received one to four weeks of driving instruction in addition to classroom training on state and local laws, safe driving practices, and first aid and emergency evacuation procedures. Aside from driving, they were responsible for checking their vehicles for safety and reliable operation, as well as issuing reports on fuel consumption, number of students and trips, and hours worked.

One of industry leaders in the early 2010s was First Student Inc., of Cincinnati, Ohio. Together with its sister company, FirstCanada, the company transported about 4 million students a day on 60,000 buses. Operating in 40 states and 10 provinces with 68,000 employees, the firm was the largest school bus transportation provider in North America. Student Transportation of America Inc. of Wall, New Jersey, also had a Canadian sister, Student Transportation of Canada, and together the two provided transportation for about 200 school districts with 6,300 buses and 6,100 employees. The firm reported sales of $205.1 million in 2009. Another industry leader was Atlantic Express Transportation Group Inc. of Staten Island, New York, which served about 100 school districts with 5,600 vehicles and 7,600 employees. About 90 percent of the company's $433.5 million annual revenues came from school bus transportation services.

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