By Polly Keary, Editor
Speeding drivers, bad brakes, and bullies.
Those are just a few of the things that could once go undetected for far too long on school buses. But with ever-more-sophisticated technology going into Monroe school buses each year, those are problems that can be caught and addressed immediately.
The fleet of 70 yellow school buses parked at the bus lot on Main Street near Park Place Middle School looks a lot like the ones used for generations of Sky Valley students.
But in the small office on the lot, the differences emerge.
On a computer screen, school transportation manager Joe Banach looks at a long list of bus numbers.
"This bus right here was going 68 miles an hour," he said, clicking on one. "That would be speeding, unless it was on a freeway."
Another click and a map of the Sky Valley pinpoints exactly where that driver was at the time the speedometer hit that high.
That's just a fraction of the information available through one of several recent technological advances added to school buses in the last couple of years.
The most complex of the system is one called Zonar, which is a computer that is tapped into the engine of the school buses in the fleet, as well as GPS enabled. The computer detects information on everything from mechanical malfunction to engine idle time and sends it instantly to the Monroe bus garage.
"They are using a telematics platform, a small computer that is connected to the engine module, and it's getting data from the engine, fault codes, and GPS information on the location of the bus at what time, the odometer, and fuel consumption," said Andrew Johnson of Zonar Systems.
One of the main benefits to the school district is that, if there is a mechanical problem with the bus while it is en route, the system can relay that information to the garage right away and help the driver know whether it is safe to keep driving.
"The school district is receiving a number of benefits for having these devices, and one is remote diagnostics," said Johnson. "Oftentimes, or most the time, the maintenance guys will know there's a problem before the driver knows, and they can diagnose it remotely by looking at the diagnostic code."
And if a bus does get into an accident, break down or have a weather-related slowdown, the garage can see exactly where it is and either go out and help or at least inform concerned parents about what is going on.
The technology also helps the district identify both safe and unsafe behaviors in the drivers.
For example, if a parent calls and says that she saw a school bus speeding, the district can go to the computers, identify exactly where the bus was and how fast it was going when the parent saw it, and can respond accordingly.
Safety isn't the only benefit, though.
There is some financial benefit derived from being able to monitor how efficiently the buses are being driven.
"One week we analyzed idling time, and that idle time cost us $800 that week alone," said Banach. "After eliminated excessive idling, we saved $100 that week, and there's 36 weeks in a school year."
That theoretically means the district saved $3,600 in excess fuel use by the end of last year, the first full year the district had the technology in all the buses.
The fuel savings helps offset the cost of installing and maintaining the system; it cost about $40,000 to install the system in the whole fleet and about $2,000 in fees per year.
Another piece of technology helping keep school buses safe is enhanced onboard cameras. On another screen in the bus garage office, Banach pulls up old footage from last year.
Whereas 10 years ago bus drivers had actual videotape cameras mounted in the front of the bus, these recordings are digital, and can be saved and stored much more easily. And whereas 10 years ago there was only one camera on the bus, now there are as many as three, recording both audio and video, and that means that the back of the bus is no longer a refuge for miscreants.
The technology comes in handy in helping kids get assistance when they are the victims of bullying or theft, as was the case in one incident at the end of the school year in June.
"About a week or two before school got out, someone called and said, 'someone stole my daughter's iPad on the bus,'" said Banach. "I was able to identify the action taking place and I called the mom. She was ecstatic. And we called the mom who's daughter took the iPad, and they connected and gave the iPad back. And the student who did it, her mom said she would have a terrible summer."
Currently only 21 of the fleet's buses have the camera technology, which is supplied by a company called 24/7, but eventually school district superintendent Ken Hoover would like them in all the buses.
Other pieces of technology that enhance safety include spouts located in front of the tires that can drop sand onto the road when it's icy, and if roads are really bad, the buses now can put chains on the tires automatically.
And another system allows trip data to upload automatically to the main computers as the bus drives back onto the lot.
In the future, Hoover would like to see time cards added to the buses, and perhaps inventory control. And some schools issue ASB cards to all students that they swipe when getting on and off the bus, allowing the district to locate kids wherever they happen to be.
One thing that makes Monroe kids more safe than anything else, Banach said, has nothing to do with technology. Rather, he said, of the four districts in which he has worked, Monroe's kids are far and away the best-behaved.
"They are head-and-shoulders above the other districts," he said.