Did you ever wonder how certain procedures came about? A practice from the history of school buses requires that bus drivers must stop their buses short of a railroad crossing and check for any oncoming trains. Not only must a driver look both ways, but must open the boarding door while stopped to help spot any train. Why is that? This article introduces you to that practice.
History of School Buses
Today, many children in the United States travel to school (pre-school through high school) on buses. That was not always the case.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the majority of schools were one-room schools. In rural areas, they were located so that children could walk to schools. Some rode a horse, pony or mule. Some traveled by farm wagon, carriage or sleigh (in winter). In cities there were neighborhood schools that allowed students to walk to school. It was also true, that many children did not continue schooling beyond the 8th grade. Later, school districts consolidated, which added distance to schools for many students and the years of education increased.
The need for transportation of students began in the late 1800s. The first vehicle for student transportation was the horse-drawn “student hack,” a short name for a hackney carriage that had a rear entrance so students did not disturb the horses. The largest enclosed carriage could carry about 20 students.
As motor vehicles came into use, early school buses quickly replaced the horse-drawn carriages. Early models used wood construction. However, steel bodies quickly became the norm. The first Blue Bird school bus was built on a Model T Ford auto chassis in 1927 (now in the Ford Museum in Dearbon, MI). Manufacturers soon chose a truck body because of its load capacity. Truck frames soon became the norm, especially after trucks became more common with their expanded use in WWI.
School bus design and construction was largely unregulated for may years. Some states introduced bus requirements, but they were not uniform. In 1939 school bus manufacturers agreed on “school bus yellow” as a standard school bus color. It was not until the 1970s that other standards came into use, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began issuing motor vehicle standards for school buses. The standards changed design and construction of school buses. Other federal laws added additional requirements. The standards helped make school buses safer. Many claim that school buses are very safe compared to autos and other kinds of motor vehicles.
Today there are about 500,000 school buses operating in the United States, carrying more than 25 million children.
The Railroad Crossing Story
Nearly all states required buses to stop before crossing a railroad track to assure that the drivers could cross a track safely after establishing there is no approaching train.
On December 1, 1938, a school bus carried 39 students to school at Jordan High School in Sandy, Utah (near Salt Lake City). There was a blinding blizzard with near zero visibility. The 29-year-old driver, Farrold “Slim” Silcox, stopped at the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad crossing in West Jordan, Utah. He had passed this way daily at this time for three years and never encountered a train. However, the blizzard caused the “Flying Ute” freight train with 50 cars to run late. This time when he crossed the tracks, there was a tragedy. The freight train struck the bus and dragged it nearly half a mile before stopping. The driver and 25 students died.
The tragedy made news across the United States. As a result, virtually every state passed laws regulating school bus travel across railroad tracks. The laws required drivers to open the entry door and/or driver’s window to check visibly and audibly for any oncoming train. In some cases the law required someone to exit the bus to complete a check before the bus could proceed.
Now you know why school buses must open their entry door after stopping at a railroad crossing.
Additional Facts Affecting School Bus Safety
Similar accidents later led to additional school bus safety laws and standards and influenced the introduction and expansion of rail crossing signals and automatic crossing gates. Eventually, the NHTSA standards for school buses became the national standards.
On December 14, 1961 near Greeley, Colorado, a school bus began crossing the railroad tracks of the Union Pacific railroad. A passenger train, the City of Denver, struck the bus carrying the driver and 38 students. The crash killed 20 children.
On October 25, 1995 a bus-train crash at Fox River Grove, Illinois killed 7 students and injured 21 others. When the substitute driver properly stopped for a traffic light, she did not know that the rear portion of the bus extended into the path of a train that would pass along the tracks behind the bus. The length of the bus was longer than the distance between the stop line at the light and the railroad track. A commuter train struck the rear of the bus and separated the bus body from the chassis. The recommendations resulting from the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board included the coupling of railroad crossing signals and gates with closely adjacent traffic lights.
These are not the only bus and train accident cases. Other cases also contributed to safer school buses and busing operations.
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