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Can You See Me Now?

GPS technology gives bus drivers (and their bosses) an extra set of eyes.

By Cynthia Kopkowski

School bus driver Bo Yealy was miles into the Nevada desert, traveling down a barren stretch of road, when she noticed her two-way radio wasn't picking up any signal. With her electronic tether to the Clark County School District dispatch headquarters cut, Yealy wondered, "What would I do if something happened to the bus?"

Had her bus been equipped with a global positioning system (GPS), Yealy said she wouldn't likely have worried. The device, typically a small metal box mounted on the bus, syncs with an ever-circling satellite network that transmits the vehicle's location as drivers make their rounds.

Originally developed as a navigational tool for the U.S. Department of Defense, GPS began cropping up in the private sector in the 1990s. Its installation in school buses is relatively new—no regulating body tracks its use on school buses yet—but it is a growing trend, according to transportation industry observers. Some of the largest school districts in Texas, Florida, New York, California, and Virginia added GPS last year.

Concern about bus breakdowns isn't the only thing driving GPS purchases. School boards also cite fears of terrorism or hijackings—such as the 2002 incident in which a Pennsylvania bus driver took his students on an unscheduled five-hour trip to Washington, D.C., all while stowing a loaded rifle behind his seat.

More sophisticated GPS units not only track a bus' location, but also its speed and operating time. In Dallas/Fort Worth, dispatchers get a signal if any buses stop for more than two minutes, indicating a possible problem. 

But that level of increased monitoring capability recently compelled Boston school bus drivers to fight a plan to put the devices on their buses—a battle they eventually lost. Drivers feared the systems would be used as a spying tool, and lead to punitive action for pick-up and drop-off delays. They have vowed to continue fighting this year for removal of the GPS units.

While NEA drivers have launched no such offensive, they do want to know more about the system's purpose and to be informed when it lands on their buses, according to Joe Murphy, a UniServ representative for the New Jersey Education Association's education support professionals.

"You can't just say 'OK, we're going to put GPS on all your buses because some vendor pitched it to the superintendent at a conference,'" says Murphy, whose group comprises 3,000 school bus drivers. "That's the wrong way to handle it."

The right way, he says, is to have "a collective group meeting, including drivers, focusing on what the needs are and what the benefits are."

Meanwhile, drivers can take a few crucial steps. First, find out if you already have GPS on your bus. You want to be aware of all tracking devices at work as you drive. If there is no unit, you and your fellow drivers may want to learn more about the system.

If you think it could mean crucial protection for you and your students, consider lobbying your district to add GPS to its fleet. Finally, be aware that you might not need a unit installed in your bus to have access to the system. Many cell phones now come with GPS technology, as do some two-way radios. Call your cell phone company or ask the dispatcher if your radio has GPS, and if so, how it works.

The key is being well-informed, says Bonnie

Chalfant, a driver in Gloucester Township, New Jersey, and member of the New Jersey Education Association executive committee. She chatted about GPS with fellow drivers at last year's Representative Assembly.

"There was some talk about invasion of privacy," says Chalfant. "But we just believe that we're professionals and we know how to handle any situation or equipment. A good driver doesn't have to worry about it."

Image composite: Getty Images and C. Lopez

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