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"Magic" Bus

Technology brings a new way to track precious cargo.

Ship a package anywhere in the world and you'll be issued a tracking number that lets you follow its journey in down-to-the-minute detail. Yet when parents place their most precious cargo on school buses, they aren't afforded the same peace of mind. It's a disparity that may soon come to an end, as a recent pilot program in the South Glens Falls (N.Y.) Central School District demonstrated this past summer.

For six weeks, the rural district equipped one of its buses with a powerful monitoring system called the Yellow School Bus Program from the wireless service provider Nextel Partners. A global positioning satellite modem mounted inside the bus made it possible for Glens Falls' administrators to follow the vehicle's movements live on an online map. As they boarded and exited the bus, students swiped their ID cards along a reader so that the school could, for instance, confidently reassure a worried parent that his or her child had made it to school that morning. A tool called "geo-fencing" sent alerts if the bus veered off course, while a panic button for the driver and a live camera view of inside the bus provided extra layers of monitoring and protection. It was the first pilot program of its kind in the region.

"We have 60 school buses that transport up to 3,000 kids daily, and we are always and forever concerned about the safety and security of children, to and from school and at all times," says the district's superintendent, James P. McCarthy, who asked to participate in the pilot program after reading about it.

A Successful Journey

Nextel Partners provided training and support throughout the pilot so that the district could make the most of the system. When it was completed, the board of education, community and staff all agreed that the program had made students' journeys more secure.

At the very least, it was a big improvement over the current system, which relies on handset radios. The region is situated at the base of the Adirondacks; its mountainous topography makes for bad radio reception, leaving bus drivers "off the radar" intermittently during their daily rounds throughout the 70-square-mile district. With the current system, there's also no way to verify that a driver's stuck to the route. "You want to make sure that bus drivers aren't breaking the laws, moving too fast, that they're staying within the boundaries you've given them," says Paul Connelly, Nextel's public sector director for the New York City area.

As any cell phone user knows, coverage in areas like Glens Falls can be hit or miss. Even Nextel Partners' system is patchy in spots, though a built-in software program estimates the bus' location even when it briefly goes out of range. Problem areas notwithstanding, the quantity and quality of the information increases exponentially with systems like this one. "It identifies whether someone has dropped out of the system more quickly, so you can start looking for them immediately," says Connelly. (Whether more information is always good is a matter of debate. See "Big Brother" sidebar.)

The Necessity of Precaution

Increased safety is certainly high on the minds of locals, but the benefits of these digital chaperones don't end there. Schools would no longer have to field calls from parents wondering when the bus would arrive but could instead direct them to an automated hotline, cutting administrative costs. A better understanding of traffic patterns could be used to streamline routes, reducing time and gas spent.

But while this pilot program was free, to actually install the system would have cost $4,000 per bus, by McCarthy's estimates, though he adds that prices have since dropped substantially. Additionally, the district would have to shell out for a full-time staff person, additional computer equipment, and monthly service charges. Unsurprisingly, the price tag raised alarm bells among parents, who feared that it would detract from textbooks and teacher salaries.

A basic Yellow School Bus package (GPS phone, cameras, panic button, tape recorder and card readers) goes for $400 to $500 per bus with monthly charges around $30 per vehicle. Because the program has been in existence for only two years, states have yet to consider funding it.

However, McCarthy says one of the benefits of doing a pilot program is that it helps parents and legislators see the benefits. Throughout the pilot, he fielded calls from other school districts as well as local media. "It certainly created a major awareness," he says.

Whether that will be enough to convince the powers-that-be to come up with funding is another question, but McCarthy is optimistic. After all, he says, "When it comes to the safety of children, you don't take any shortcuts."

Jenn Shreve is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.