Safety is one of the most important issues in the school bus industry. For School Bus Safety Week last week, 'School Transportation News' interviewed Trish Reed, vice president and general manager of IC Bus, to discuss some of the safety features available in the company’s school bus offerings.

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School Transportation News: Can you tell us about the IC Bus feature, No Student Left Behind?

Trish Reed: It’s pretty simple. When the school bus driver is done with their route, and they turn the key off to the bus, an alarm sounds. The school bus driver has to walk to the back of the bus where they reset the alarm. It really forces them to make sure there’s no child left behind. It is particular to IC Bus and we put it standard in our school buses, and we’ve done that since 2004. So 90 percent of our customers use our system, 8 percent might use another comparable system, but not our proprietary system, and about 2 percent of our customers do something in the aftermarket.

STN: Fleet maintenance is very important to an operation. Can you tell us a little bit about OnCommand Connection, and how it helps keeps fleet operations running smoothly?

TR: OnCommand Connection is a remote diagnostics tool. What it does is it sends alerts to a maintenance manager or a dispatcher that something’s going on with the bus. Navistar has offered OnCommand Connection on our trucks probably for over two years. It’s a great system. It’s something we wanted to bring to our school bus customers, so we launched it in July for school bus operators. We actually piloted it in New York State with some customers last winter. If you’re a dispatcher or the maintenance manager or the transportation director, you can, whether it’s on your mobile phone or your computer, get a dashboard telling you what’s going on with your school buses. You can set alerts based on high or low severity and you get an indication of what’s going on with that school bus from an operational standpoint before it leaves the lot. One benefit our pilot customers got last winter, was obviously when you have a cold winter and you get ready to go out in the morning and start over 100 buses, you can drain a lot of battery. One of the biggest challenges our customers have in the winter is getting our buses started to make sure they’re all ready to run and start their routes. And so the benefit was they would get fault codes early on letting them know where there was low voltage on buses. And that’s really where we see the benefit with OnCommand Connection. On the truck side we talk about uptime, keeping the truck on the road. We want to do the same thing with a bus, but the important thing with a school bus is not just uptime, it’s on time. If we can help our customers be proactive and know what’s going on with those buses, before they leave the lot, that’s helping them. If there is a problem with that bus, they know they have a problem before it ever leaves on the route. The great thing with OnCommand Connection is it doesn’t just work with IC Bus, it works with any of our competitors’ buses as well.

STN: Do you know how many buses have adopted OnCommand Connection so far?

TR: I think we’re already up to 500 buses on it right now beyond the pilots. With technology, you’ve got to be able to really show your customers it’s easy to use and what the benefits are. We’ve got a lot of interest in it and in getting connectivity with anything, there’s a little bit of a launch time. We’re really happy with the 500 that we have so far, and we’ve got goals to grow that all through the next calendar year.

STN: Let's turn our attention to drivers, how does the steering wheel switches option work?

TR: A few years ago, the team did a driver ergonomics study. They videotaped a lot of drivers and watched them when they were on a route. Drivers are male, they’re female, and they’re tall, short. Making that compartment the most comfortable for the driver is important to us. But one of the other things that we picked up on with this study was the fact that in most school buses, traditionally, your switches to turn on your amber lights and those that start and put out the stop arm, all those are over on that left side panel. What we noticed is a driver is coming up to a bus stop, and they’re taking their eyes off the road and looking over to the left to hit the switches. We said “If we could put these switches on the steering wheel, that prevents a driver from ever having to shift their eyes to that left hand side panel.” So that was one of the things that came out of it because you want your driver focused on what’s going on right in front of them as they approach the bus stop. It’s not that it’s overly dangerous to look to the left hand side. It’s just another measure of safety to ensure their focus is where it needs to be.

STN: Can you tell us about the strobe lights option?

TR: Those are on top of the buses. They come on automatically if the windshield wipers are on. If you’re in darker conditions than what you would normally be in, like fog, it’s just another way for other drivers to see the school bus with the strobe lights. Those are placed up on the roof and are an additional safety feature that just lets other drivers know that the school bus is there.

STN: Where may IC Bus head in the future in terms of safety?

TR: One thing we’re real excited about at IC Bus as we move into the future is there’s some tremendous technology in automobiles today, like collision mitigation, blind spot cameras and different things like that. I think what we get excited about is some of that technology is coming out over into the truck side, and possibly bringing that into the school bus side. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it’s coming pretty quickly. I think being able to bring some of that technology to school buses as we go, and doing it at a manageable cost for our customers is what we’re excited about looking ahead. All school buses are built very safe today and there’s tremendous safety features and we’re really looking forward into what we can do with technology to make them even safer.

-School Transportation News