360 Degree: Video Technology Addresses School Bus Blind Spots

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A small video camera mounted at the rear of the school bus is part of 360-degree views available to drivers. Systems are becoming widely available to address the student "danger zone."

School districts are showing a growing interest in a developing trend in video technology they believe could have a tremendous impact on student safety around the school bus by making the Danger Zone less dangerous.

The technology is known by different product names, depending upon the manufacturer, but its common vernacular is the 360-degree video camera system. It comprises a series of cameras mounted around the bus that complements FMVSS mirror systems by effectively eliminating driver blind spots that have proven so deadly in the past. 

The Danger Zone is defined by the industry as a 10-foot radius around the school bus that might conceal a student’s presence. The five-foot areas immediately in front of the bus from fender to fender and to the right rear quadrant of the bus are considered especially dangerous for student pedestrians.

School bus OEMs Thomas Built Buses and Collins Bus offer the technology as options as do the industry’s traditional video surveillance providers. But the practice of customers specifying the cameras is in its “infancy” right now, said Matt Scheuler, vice president of Collins for parent company REV Group.

“Districts are still educating themselves on what’s available and their overall features and benefits,” he added.

One of those taking note is Houston Independent School District. Shop Manager Andres Montes said he’s been impressed with the 360-degree system on display at trade shows. Houston currently has a four-camera system but blind spots remain. “What I like most about the 360-degree system is you can see everything around you from the view above the bus,” he explained. “If something is there you’ll be able to see it.”

Josh Rice, transportation director for nearby New Caney ISD, said even though his district does not have the 360-degree camera system, he believes it will become very popular in the school bus market by adding to the safety of students around the bus. “As we train new drivers, we always stress the danger zones that exist around the buses,” Rice said. “What a great way to assist the driver in eliminating that area by being able to see it on camera. I believe that it will aide in the loading and unloading process by giving the 360-degee view around the bus.”

Rice added that the district’s most recent school bus order was placed before the 360-camera system was introduced. He said it will be included in the district’s next set of school bus specifications. Until then, the district will continue to use backup cameras. “This allows drivers to see objects that may lie in the blind spot directly behind the bus,” Rice said, adding. “Drivers are encouraged to not use the backup camera to back the bus, that’s what our mirrors are for.”

Lori Jetha, director of marketing for video surveillance manufacturer Seon, said 360-degree technology has been around for a couple years but has just recently received media notice. “We’ve seen this type of system become more popular within the past year,” Jetha said. “But there are still not that many systems in operation. I think it’s a matter of awareness because the technology is available. As an industry, we just have to get the word out.”

Jetha explained that Seon’s 360 system uses four cameras—one on each side of the bus. The images are stitched together via computer software into images on a split-screen dashboard monitor. The image the driver sees is controlled by the direction the bus is going. The rear camera gives the driver an image of what’s behind the bus when it is in reverse. The road ahead is displayed when the bus is going forward. The cameras on either side of the bus are activated by the turn signals. 

Some manufacturers offer a bird’s eye view looking down on the bus. This view is displayed on the split screen. The view looking to the front and the bird’s eye view are live and will show any object coming near the bus on all sides. The monitor displaying images are an option for school districts concerned about distracted bus drivers. The 360 system obviates the need for backup cameras.

Jetha said backup cameras are a relatively low cost solution if backing up is the main concern. Most school district prohibit school bus drivers from backing up unless they have a guide or they are navigating the bus yard. Some states have laws prohibiting it. “We’ve found the view in the front of the bus and the curbside view are most important. If there’s a child running beside the bus the driver might not see that in a side mirror because it is a blind spot,” she said. “But you would see the child with a 360-degree system.”

The introduction of the new technology is also accompanied by concerns that bus drivers are distracted. Skeptics say the more technology advances to make children safer on school buses and add to the efficient operation of bus fleets, the more instruments are placed on a school bus that require the bus driver’s attention.

Ariel Rodriguez, fleet manager for Humble ISD north of Houston said he is piloting a rear-facing camera but only on one bus to get driver feedback on whether the monitor that displays images when the bus is in reverse is a distraction. “When the bus is moving forward the rear camera shuts off,” Rodriguez said. “Were concerned that the indicator screen by the driver may be a distraction, so we’re taking a look at it.”

Rodriguez said the potential for driver distraction has been a topic of discussion in the transportation department, especially with the new technology. “I’m not saying it will distract the driver, I’m not sure,” he said. “If a screen is going to be on while the bus is moving, theoretically, it could be dangerous to take your eyes off the road for any reason.”  

Jetha said she has not heard of any concerns expressed about the system’s monitors distracting drivers. “In essence, the 360-degree camera system is like a mirror, she said. “And mirrors are not seen as distractions. This is a way to see around the bus.”

She added that kids are most at risk when a bus is moving away from a stop. “That’s when most accidents happen,” she said. “That’s the benefit of having four cameras; you’re getting a live view from around the bus.”

A bigger issue, she added, is whether the driver checks the mirror each time before putting the bus in motion. “It’s the same with monitors as with mirrors,” Jetha said. “It’s a training issue.”

Robert Scott, vice president of sales and marketing for 24/7 Security Inc., agreed, saying that as technology advances, so should training. “There are people in the industry who have begun talking about distractions,” Scott said. “We have to learn how to use these technologies to their optimum effectiveness. We have to determine how to best use these new technologies in a safe way.”

Richie Howard, president and CEO of AngelTrax, said the 360-degree system is used mostly on automobiles and requires some modification on buses because the setup is dependent upon the length of the vehicle. He cautioned that the 360 system may not be a substitute for side cameras or backup cameras because the system’s lack of depth of field. “When you use a 360-degree camera you may get three to four feet on the side of the bus, but if you need to see what’s happening in the adjoining lanes or across the street, you won’t get that,” Howard said.

Transportation officials and manufacturers agree that cost is a major factor in school districts’ lukewarm attitudes toward the 360-degree system, but that is slowly changing. “The popularity of the system has increased within the past year,” Jetha said. “It’s still a relatively new product. Even on the transit side of things it is gaining popularity because of the pedestrian issue in urban areas.”

Montes suggested the 360 system would gain popularity quicker among school districts if the price were right. “It is a good safety tool for drivers to have,” Montes said. “Of course cost is always the reason why school districts may not be purchasing the system yet. As the price comes down, school districts may be able to afford it.”