Industry Inflection


New Technology Can Only Improve Safety with Proper Training, Experts Say

Lights, camera … mirrors? These three components can work together to optimize school bus drivers’ field of vision around their bus, yet industry professionals agree that the mirrors are the most essential tool, combined with the proper training, to ensure that students stay safe.

During the 2007-2008 school year, six students died after being struck at the bus rear axle position, according to the Kansas Department of Education (KSDOE), which compiles annual statistics on such fatalities nationwide. Conversely, between 1970 and 2007, 622 children were killed in front of the bus.

Dick Fischer, a longtime school bus safety consultant, said it is difficult for him to accept these statistics.

“I think about that child who is no longer with us and how the risk could have been eliminated very easily,” Fischer said. “Every case I’ve done as an expert witness, when there were fatalities around the bus, it was due to improper mirror adjustment, school bus driver training and student training on how to cross around the bus.”

The good news is that transportation directors, OEMs and trainers are all working to close the gaps in knowledge they say have arisen from misinterpreting FMVSS 111, which specifies requirements for the performance and location of school bus rearview mirrors. For example, Morgan County School District located about 80 miles northeast of Denver, utilizes the Field of Vision video by Rosco. And the district has a mirror grid made of tarp for helping drivers adjust their mirrors properly.

“When the weather’s nice it works well to give all the drivers a reminder,” said Cathy Windsheimer, Fort Morgan’s transportation director.

But consistency is key. What helps is the development of new technology that works in conjunction with mirrors to increase the field of vision around the bus danger zone.

“FMVSS 111 really forces us as an industry to walk a tightrope as far as field of view and image size, which relates directly to safety because you need both,” said Dan Swain of Mirror Lite Company. “Our high-definition cross-view mirror actually reduces the image size of the bus over the standard convex and increases the image size of objects around the bus.”

Paul Schuster, also of Mirror Lite, added that its quadri-spherical shape is unique.

“We think this is the optimum cross-view shape because you don’t want to see the sky or overhead lights interfering with your picture; you want to see the danger zone,” he said, adding that the company’s oval mirror, as long as it’s properly adjusted, remains an option.

Grote Industries’ Chris Commack noted that the Blind Spot mirror, an 8-inch convex mirror attached to a 10- to 14-inch extendable arm, is designed to reveal often unseen areas where children could linger. “With the arms and the way they extend, they allow blind spots to be exposed,” Commack said.

According to Dave McDonald, sales manager for Rosco Mirror’s technical specifications and end-user training, technology has come a long way, specifically in regard to lenses, cameras, lighting and computers.

“We use computer-generated imagery to be able to pinpoint the exact view the driver needs to see from the driver’s seat. We do a preliminary test on the computer around the federal grid,” he said.

The latest offering from Rosco is The Eye-Max, a cross-view mirror with an asymmetric lens that “increases the imagery what of drivers see by up to 33 percent,” McDonald added. The team is also working on lights and cameras, such as the interior-mounted Dual Vision system. “We see camera and mirror integration becoming an integral part of going forward in the industry,” he said.

Larry Bluthardt, director of pupil transportation at the Kansas State Department of Education, said he planned to pilot-test Rosco’s new Bright Vision system, a series of LED lights that illuminate the right side of the bus during loading and unloading. However, Bluthardt cautioned against drivers relying too heavily on any new technology.

“The more whistles and bells they put on that bus to check for children around the bus, in my opinion, give a kind of false sense of security for the driver,” he said. “It’s only going to be safer if the methods for use are properly taught to drivers, and they adhere to the training.”

Improper Use Poses Problems
Rosco hired Fischer to work on its “Field of Vision” program that is offered to school districts like Fort Morgan.

“The biggest problem we’ve had industry-wide is the lack of proper adjustment,” said McDonald. “Sometimes drivers adjust their cross-view mirrors to see traffic, and that’s not good. They’re not designed to be used as driving mirrors but are for loading and off loading only.”

Mirror Lite’s Schuster contended that many drivers are also using cross-views to check their four-way flashers.

“From what I hear, several states are teaching their drivers: ‘Always check your warning lights in cross-view mirrors,’” he said. “To do this, you’ve got to tilt your mirror up too far, which is not the intended use. Drivers won’t see the optimum field of vision for their danger zone.”

Swain noted that FMVSS 111 is interpreted as a mirror adjustment “system,” which, he added, it is not.

“The FMVSS 111 does not separate the convex from the flat mirror on the side-view system; it does not designate what each mirror needs to see in that system. Drivers are taking it upon themselves to decide which objects to view with each mirror,” said Swain.

Schuster shared that Mirror Lite is introducing a new mirror adjustment method that may extend FMVSS 111. “It’s a simplified version that achieves the same field of vision,” he said. “It can be done more quickly and it uses color coding, whereas the current one uses cylinders. This method is almost more stringent: If you can see a spot on the ground, that’s harder to see than a cylinder.”

The main differences between the Sencillo method and the current grid, explained Swain, who had tested it, is that it uses a painted grid allows drivers to conduct the checks themselves. And color coding along the sides help drivers adjust their cross-view mirrors.

“By blending the intent of the FMVSS 111 requirements with a large dose of practicality, the Sencillo Mirror Adjustment Method was created to bridge the gap between the manufacturers’ compliance certification and the driver’s ability to properly adjust the mirrors as simply and quickly as possible,” Swain said.

Inconsistent Training Seen Across States
Kansas’ Bluthardt said he wishes that more state training programs stressed the importance of mirror use and danger zones.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a bus with the mirrors all properly adjusted,” he said. “Drivers also adjust mirrors to check on the overhead lights, and I always tell them, ‘We’d rather you have a dead light up there than a dead kid down below.’”

Fischer is also concerned about inconsistent state training on mirrors.

“I’ve spent four hours with a new driver just on mirror use and the danger zone,” Fischer said. “If the bus is accepted and the drivers can’t use the mirrors properly, if they’re mounted improperly or in the wrong location, if you don’t train drivers correctly — then things begin to happen.”

He advised trainers to be thorough when teaching the basics of mirror adjustment. In addition, drivers should implement what they’ve learned by sitting inside every bus before it leaves the yard to gauge field of vision because of differences in size, hood length, seats, and so on. Last, Fischer urges transportation directors to not assume that every school bus that arrives is automatically set.

“When that bus is delivered, you really need to make sure you can see everything, that the danger zone is not blocked. Don’t just accept the bus because someone says it meets the standards,” he said.

After working with Fischer for two decades, Bluthardt said he can appreciate why so much of his 40-hour “Train the Trainer” program focuses on proper mirror adjustment.

“In his five-day program, you’re going to use those mirrors nearly every day and spend two to three days just on mirrors,” he said.

McDonald, who has attended other training programs, agreed that mirrors must be a major focus.

“Drivers get a lot of information in a very short time to totally digest. It’s not that they weren’t taught the standard; it depends on how it’s presented,” he said. “When you do one specific item, like mirrors and field of vision, then they really pick that up.”

Chuck Hall, transportation director of Blair, Nebraska, said Fischer’s expertise captivated his crowd of 120 drivers, directors and law enforcement officials.

“He spent at least two hours of the eight-hour session just on mirrors and proper adjustment. It was amazing,” he said, adding that veteran drivers benefited in particular because they realized mistakes they had made. “After this training, we were told by the DMV that our drivers are second to none, and that’s priceless,” said Hall.

Bluthardt cannot comprehend why more state directors are not using Fischer’s services.

“I’ve told all state directors, if you’re not using him, you’re missing a great opportunity for drivers to learn from the best in the country. He’s always been ahead of the game,” he said. “We’ll never know how many kids’ lives he has saved by teaching one driver the proper method.”

Reprinted from the January 2009 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.