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School Bus Fleet Age: The Hidden Problem Impacting Schools

How Long Do School Buses Actually Last?

The classic image of the big yellow school bus is timeless. But, like cars, school buses don’t last forever and need to be replaced. From the seats, to the wheels, to the interior mechanics, school buses age just like your own vehicle, if not quicker due to overuse and lack of maintenance. Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep school districts from retiring buses any sooner. The average lifespan of a school bus is 12 to 15 years, depending on the district and size.  

The Hidden Problem with the Age of School Bus Fleets

Think about the last time you saw a school bus. Did it look sparkly and new? Probably not. The average age of a school bus is 9 years or more. In fact, most school buses aren’t retired until they are 15 or 16 years old on average. If you think 16 years sounds old for any vehicle, you’re right. 

Old school buses pose problems for everyone. With aging fleets, school districts need more technicians to fix issues. School Bus Fleet (SBF) found that the average ratio of school buses to technicians has steadily increased over the years, adding an extra technician per bus every single year.  Not only that, but drivers are always waiting for the next mechanical failure (as well as being fearful for their own safety). And parents aren’t too thrilled about their kids riding in ancient clunkers that pose tons of risks. 

Aging School Buses are a Systemic Problem

Aging school buses are a growing problem nationwide. About one-fourth of operations are actually buying used school buses to replace older models, instead of purchasing new vehicles. In South Carolina, for example, numerous stories have surfaced in recent years highlighting the state’s aging fleet of school buses. Reports uncovered most of the bus fleet was more than 15 or 20 years old. 

Upgrading older buses is a huge challenge. Stagnant state funding to support school transportation forces districts to completely forego system or equipment upgrades. And when it comes time for routine maintenance or to make repairs, almost half of the shops aren’t even using any kind of fleet maintenance software. Additionally, school bus mechanics should be ASE certified, but according to a School Bus Fleet survey, only 56% of body shops are.

Infrequent and low-quality maintenance produces both safety and operating efficiency concerns that can’t be ignored. 

Can Bus Technicians Keep Up?

Technicians are struggling to keep up with aging fleets. In bigger districts, some technicians are responsible for the upkeep of 25 buses each, a ratio that has increased over the years. With the COVID-19 pandemic, technicians are now also in charge of disinfection and stocking PPE for drivers. 

Technician pay is increasing, but only by an average of about $1.00 from 2013-2017. An increase in technician salaries will cost districts more money to use their services. But without significant pay increases, how can districts keep technicians around?

The True Cost of Carbon Emissions

Sustainability is a huge issue for aging buses. Older bus fleets are usually powered by diesel, and diesel-powered vehicles release hefty carbon emissions that aren’t safe for kids, drivers, or the environment. 

In fact, over 90% of the country’s 500,000 school buses actually still run on diesel. American school buses travel about four billion miles annually, pumping out 8.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gas into the air every single year.

With stats like these, environmental agencies are trying to make changes and give schools a leg up. For example, in 2015 the EPA awarded funds to various school districts across the country to encourage them to replace or retrofit their older diesel buses.

Yet even with this move towards alternative fuel, school districts continue to purchase diesel buses in large numbers. For all new school buses purchased for the 2019-2020 school year, 93% of school districts respondents chose diesel for some or all of their buses. Why? 

Environmentally-conscious changes, like completely switching to electric fleets, still tend to be costly. Instead, some fleets are getting new “lower-emission” ISB6.7 G engines. These engines are still powered by natural gas, which is more a bandaid solution than a long-lasting move towards real change.   

Are Old School Buses Safe?

Dangerous carbon emissions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lack of safety in old school buses. In fact, little has changed in overall school bus safety since the 1960s. Take seatbelts, for example. How often are kids actually buckled in when they ride to and from school? Even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently clarified that kids should always be buckled in (no matter the vehicle), too many buses are still in circulation without them. 

These outdated vehicles also tend to lack modern technology like on-board cameras to prevent bullying, and stop-arm cameras to capture images of cars that pass illegally. 

How Can the Student Transportation Industry Do Better?

Based on the data, the chances of a child riding in a relatively new, safe, and carbon-free school bus are pretty unlikely. The student transportation industry has to do better. But how?

Buses have to be updated far more regularly. The industry must ensure that mechanics get ASE certified and are paid properly. Part of that involves limiting the number of mechanics required per bus by retiring buses earlier so costs can stay low. The industry must instead move towards more carbon neutral vehicles to stay ahead of the game, reduce costs in the long-run, and ultimately, keep kids safe. 

All these changes must be made at every level and in every district, no matter their economic standing or budgets. Every kid, driver, and district matters. 

Are We Keeping Buses in Service Too Long?

The answer is a resounding yes. But right now the industry isn’t taking the right steps to keep them updated and in shape while they’re still in service. 

Zum is already leading the way and outpacing the traditional bussing system with big technological and safety advances. Zum reduces costs and increases efficiency by deploying the best vehicle for each route—from a fleet that includes electric vehicles, buses, cars, and vans. There are no ancient vehicles or outdated technologies. In fact, updates and advancements go above and beyond modern utility— they’re also equitable and work to accommodate all children, like kids with special needs.  

Our school buses need help. But in an industry that lags behind in basic advancement, Zum is doing the opposite. We’re breaking the mold and filling the gaps where the traditional system can’t. Want to learn more about getting Zum in your school? Reach out and you’ll get a fantastic service that includes new buses, all of which are carbon neutral. 

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