This Is The Real Reason Why School Buses Are Always Painted Yellow

It’s early in the morning, and a group of kids wait on a street corner. They spy a flash of yellow: one of the thousands of yellow buses that do the daily school run around the United States. These vehicles are so ingrained in some people’s minds that they can’t help but feel a little nostalgic every time they see one. But if you’re wondering why the coaches are that particular color, there is a clever explanation.

Alongside the bright yellow shade, American school buses have some other distinctive features too. We’re referring to the exterior of the vehicles, of course, as each one of them has a very similar appearance. Indeed, most of them use the “cutaway van chassis” look that bus company the Wayne Corporation introduced.

And while the Wayne Corporation eventually closed its doors back in 1992, the chassis look still lives on today. The Blue Bird Company is also credited with shaping the standard appearance of U.S. school buses as well, along with the Gillig Corporation. You see, the latter is responsible for the vehicles’ curved roofs.

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This is referred to as the “California Top” design. A glamorous name for an unglamorous accessory, right? But as these modifications were being made in the past, a big moment occurred at the back-end of the 1930s. At that stage, an important meeting was called at Columbia University, drawing in transportation chiefs from across the country.

Before that meeting at the college, moms and dads had voiced their concerns about the wellbeing of their kids when they traveled on school buses. That’s because the vehicles didn’t have a similar look or design by that point. Instead, schools were using whatever they could get their hands on.

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Essentially, the children were traveling around in vehicles that had been redeployed as school buses. Yes, it’s as worrying as it sounds. So to help put their parents’ minds at ease, one man stepped forward in 1939. Dr. Frank Cyr, who plied his trade as a professor at Columbia University, called the aforementioned meeting to discuss the matter.

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Looking back, it could be argued that Cyr was the perfect person to helm that gathering at the college. “Why?” we hear you ask. Well, the professor had dedicated ten years of his career to analyzing school bus safety in America in the time before then. On that note, he was excellently placed to talk about potential standardizations.

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And to give you an even better idea as to how important the event was, it was financed by the Rockefeller Foundation too. The organization offered up a grant worth $5,000. In 2020’s money, that would be the equivalent of over $90,000. So it wasn’t a small gathering but a major undertaking.

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By the end of the meeting, Cyr and company had drawn up more than 40 different standards that school buses needed to follow. This signaled a radical shift in how the vehicles were created, as they now had to adopt similar shapes and sizes. So gone were the days where any old automobile could be refitted for the job.

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Yet you might be surprised to hear that that particular change was beneficial for everyone. You see, the switch in appearance saved the bus manufacturers quite a bit of money, as they could use the same outline going forward. And of course, the alterations protected the kids too, so it was a win-win.

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Keeping that in mind, you’re probably wondering what the school buses looked like before 1939. How different were they? And did the vehicles sport a yellow shade? Well, to answer the second question, the colors reflected the overall attitude towards the automobiles in the past, meaning there was no set tone.

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As for the actual buses, they came onto the scene in America in 1886. At that time the Wayne Corporation, then known as Wayne Works, developed specialized coaches that were led by horses. According to the website, these modes of transport were referred to as both “kid hacks” and “school hacks.”

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But if you expected Wayne Works’ creation to catch on across the United States during that period, you’d be wrong. Instead, kids had to rely on different types of transportation depending on where they lived. Sledges and farmers’ carts were among the alternatives, while other students simply needed to walk. Some choices, right?

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By 1914, though, Wayne Works came up with another idea. With more and more people using motorized vehicles on the road, the company turned to the chassis that we spoke about earlier. As you might’ve guessed, these new buses possessed far more speed than the old school hacks, changing the landscape forever.

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Yet the interior of those vehicles was still markedly different from what you’d see inside a school bus today. In these days, much like in any other coach, the children are usually seated forwards, facing the back of the driver. The Wayne Works buses weren’t like that, as their chairs were placed in an “inward” position.

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When looking at that, you might have a better understanding why the parents were so concerned about safety back then. Anyway, organizations like the Gillig Corporation and the Blue Bird Company stepped up in the following years. As we mentioned previously, they brought some game-changing ideas to the table ahead of 1939.

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Remember the California Top? That innovative look was conjured up by the Gillig Corporation back in 1920. As for the Blue Bird Company’s contribution, it created the school buses’ steel exterior some 17 years later. Unsurprisingly, that led to the retirement of the wooden frameworks that students had grown used to.

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But while those ideas continued to evolve after the meeting at Columbia University, you might still have a burning question in the back of your mind. Why are school buses bright yellow? Is there a particular reason? Well, we can shed some light on that, because there is an intriguing explanation.

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Some consider yellow to be an upbeat shade, implying optimism and bringing smiles to people’s faces. In turn, those positive connotations are said to be particularly effective with youngsters. That might also explain why moms and dads often opt for the color when it comes to fixing up their children’s bedrooms.

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So if we take that idea on board, yellow seems like the perfect color to use for a school bus. After all, most teachers would certainly be happy with a classroom full of cheerful, optimistic students until the final bell. Beyond that, though, there is a more scientific explanation as well.

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Going back to the 1939 meeting at Columbia University, a worker from the Blue Bird Company first brought up the idea. At that stage, discussions about the color threw up some interesting debates, as the experts looked to make the school buses stick out. On that note, you’d think that red might’ve been the ideal shade.

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Well, red was associated with “danger” and stop signs by the time of the meeting, which ruled it out. So that opened the door for the Blue Bird Company employee’s suggestion of yellow. And as an added incentive to use that color, people in the science sector believe that the bright tone is always noticeable, regardless of the conditions.

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That brings us on to the school buses’ schedules across a normal week in America. When are you more likely to see misty weather conditions or darker periods over the day? The morning and late afternoon, of course, which ties into the times when kids will be using the vehicles.

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Simply put, yellow is said to cut through that murkiness and immediately grab the attention of nearby motorists. The school bus essentially becomes a large beacon, which should in turn prevent any potential road collisions. But did you know that the iconic vehicles use a particular variant of the aforementioned shade?

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You see, once Cyr and the experts had settled on the idea of using yellow in 1939, they came up with a unique tone. By combining a soft shade with “bright orange,” the group created a color called National School Bus Chrome. In later years, it was eventually renamed as National School Bus Glossy Yellow.

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The group’s decision certainly paid off in the end, as a research project backed up its choice. Like we mentioned earlier, scientists have long lauded the attention-grabbing qualities of the color yellow. But why is it so noticeable when compared to other shades out there? What makes it so special?

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Well, the scientific paper revealed that yellow is simpler to detect outside our sightline, beating out tones such as red. To break things down even further, there’s a fascinating finding in the project. It turns out that it’s a little bit simpler and quicker for humans to distinguish something that’s colored yellow if it’s in their peripheral vision than it would be if the object was colored differently.

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Yet despite reaching the decision in 1939, it took another 35 years before every school bus in America adopted the yellow paint job. Since that day in 1974, the shade has remained the same and shows no sign of getting altered in the future. Why fix what isn’t broken, right?

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To explain more, Bob Riley spoke to the Today I Found Out website in November 2013. He plied his trade at the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, working as the executive director. In Riley’s opinion, the color is so ingrained in our minds that it’d be easier to keep it than opt for another shade.

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Riley told the website, “You can’t buy a bus that doesn’t meet that [color] formula. If they had to do it today, who knows if it would be the same, because now they have brighter, more noticeable things. Think of the vests highway workers wear. Obviously, they’re even more noticeable than National School Bus Chrome yellow.”

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“But the rationale for maintaining that color is its universal acceptance,” Riley added. “We’ve all been born and raised knowing what that is.” So if a school bus’s shade is recognized for its safety connotations, you’ve probably got an additional question to ask. Just where are the seatbelts for the traveling kids?

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After all, the yellow tone won’t protect the children if the bus does get into an accident. Well, as it turns out, some school vehicles do have seatbelts on board as a necessity. However, that’s only for coaches that clock in at under 10,000 pounds in weight. If they weigh more, they don’t need seatbelts.

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On the rest of the buses, only the driver’s chair has a seatbelt. Unsurprisingly, plenty of research has gone into that decision throughout the years. Groups such as the National Academy of Sciences and the National Transportation Safety Board have revealed that the vehicles’ interior plays a role in that.

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As we all know, school bus seating is fairly compact. But that’s a deliberate choice, with the set-up acting like a “protective envelope” if there ever was a collision. On top of that, they don’t move as quickly as other automobiles, so seatbelts aren’t a must. You don’t often see one speeding, do you?

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If the transport chiefs ever changed their minds regarding seatbelts, though, it might cause several unwanted headaches. For instance, the costs to update the buses could reach something like $800 million. Oof. That’s a staggering number. Yet the complications wouldn’t just be of a financial nature. There’s another huge consideration.

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You see, it’s sometimes easy to forget that students of various ages get the school bus each day. So the seatbelts would obviously have to reflect the ranging sizes. In turn, that could affect the number of children who’d normally take up a chair as well, resulting in less space.

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But surely it would be worth the money and trouble if it saved lives? Well, it’s not obvious that it would. There’ve been several studies run by government agencies concerned with transportation agencies, and the conclusions have been convincingly firm. Within the bounds of statistical significance, fatalities would not change.

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Indeed, including seatbelts might make things even worse. This is because if a coach crashed now, the passengers would be pushed forward and strike the thick padding of the seat in front. But if they wore seatbelts, they would be yanked back, and their head could collide with the same padding. Plus, the driver’s job could also be made much harder.

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As it stands, school bus drivers just need to focus on their task behind the wheel. But if seatbelts came in, they’d have to check that every passenger on board had theirs secured before hitting the road. Alongside that, the driver would be responsible for ensuring that kids didn’t remove them during the journey too. That’s a lot of hassle, right?

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So as bizarre as it may sound, children are arguably safer without the seatbelts. And here’s something else to consider. On average, the Stanford Children’s Health website reported that only seven youngsters die in school bus accidents every year. From what we’ve learned, the color and lack of restraints could serve as an explanation behind that low figure.

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