Today the iconic image of the yellow school bus is recognizable across the country, but the early days of organized school transportation began in various ways depending on the needs of the community.
Dating back to 1869, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed the first U.S. legislation that allowed the use of public funds to transport school children. By 1919, all 48 states at the time had enacted similar laws as schooling became compulsory for students.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, most areas were using a modified farm wagon, called a “kid hack,” to transport students to and from schools. Essentially, the word “hack” was short for “hackney carriage,” otherwise known as a horse-drawn cab. Since most children attended one-room schools, a kid hack could serve all the farms in the area and transport less than 20 kids to the schoolhouse. As early as 1914 in Wayne County, Indiana, the Wayne Works attached kid hacks to early motor vehicles to transport students.
In the 1920s, heavier all-steel bodies were produced to replace wooden bodies, specifically for transporting students. Since the seating was permanently mounted on a truck chassis, rather than removable from a truck body used for other purposes during the school day, the combined vehicle became known as the “school bus.” Around that time, a 1927 Ford Model T was also created with a steel body by the company that would later become Blue Bird.
By the 1930s, leaders became concerned about industry-wide standards for school buses, and rural education expert Frank Cyr held a week-long conference at Columbia University in 1939 to discuss school bus design. Funded by a $5,000 grant, Cyr invited transportation officials, bus manufacturers and paint companies to the meeting, and they adopted 44 standards for interior and exterior details. This is when the National School Bus Glossy Yellow color was formally adopted for use on school buses, particularly desirable thanks to its high visibility during the hours of dawn and dusk.
As one-room schools phased out in the 1940s and the Baby Boom generation increased the student population through the 1950s, manufacturers began creating larger school bus bodies and the curbside wheelchair lift was developed. As concerns around passenger cars arose, the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act passed in 1966, authorizing the federal government to issue regulations and standards around motor vehicle safety and the 1977 U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards addressed the crashworthiness of school buses with regulations around rollover protection, body joint strength, passenger seating and fuel system integrity. The Wayne Corporation, which created a structural body design that featured continuous interior and exterior longitudinal panels in 1973, paved the way for these standards.
With the signing of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1986, school bus drivers became required to acquire a commercial driver’s license as well as school bus-specific training. After a major school bus accident in Kentucky in 1988, safety features were studied and more standards were added, creating the now common 33 regulations that apply to school buses, including emergency exits, mirrors for drivers to see around buses, and swing-out stop arms that alert drivers when children get off the bus. Wayne Corporation served as a leading producer of school buses in the U.S. through the 1990s, and is known for innovating several aspects of modern school buses including side-mounted guard rails, inboard wheelchair lifts and high-headroom doors.
Today, the school bus is one of the safest modes of transportation on the road. Seat compartmentalization provides a high level of crash safety for passengers, as well as four-inch cushioned seats and seat backs. School bus manufacturing and safety has come a long way, and in years to come, school bus companies are looking at new ways to reduce emissions with alternative-fuel and electric options, create more efficient and safer routes, and at all times keep students safe as they travel on the road.
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