A-Headin’ On Over The Hills

My thanks to Al DeVito of Vineyard Views for sending me an article from the WSJ describing the Aspirnaut Initiative. [1]

The Aspirnaut Initiative was developed by Bill Hudson, Director of the Center for Matrix Biology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. On a journey back to his home town of Grapevines, Arkansas, he was alarmed to note that students were spending three hours a day riding the bus to and from school.

The program provides laptops, iPods, and wireless internet access on the school bus, allowing students living in remote rural areas to study educational courses while traveling between school and home. Still very much in the ‘pilot’ stage, it is hoped to expand the project to take in other geographical areas over time.

The advantages of the program are obvious, though – says the WSJ – some students find it difficult to focus on work when the bus is bouncing over gravel roads. As an expert on the school bus environment, I can categorically agree that few students would have the necessary concentration to overcome distractions created by such surroundings.

The American school bus is of profoundly antiquated design. Even the most modern leave a great deal to be desired. Transporting kids to school does not, in the view of authority, warrant much in the way of creature comfort. Seats are cramped, air-conditioning usually non-existent, and lighting would be drastically improved with the addition of half a dozen candles.

The latest model, the inaccurately named, ‘Saf-T-Liner C2’, may, according to the manufacturer, Thomas, “define the future of school bus transportation,” [2] but, if that’s so, then the future for America’s schoolkids will look alarmingly similar to the past. The C2 is somewhat quieter, and the ride comfort improved, over its predecessor, the FS-65, but then that would be true for any vehicle more sophisticated than a go-cart.

The C2 is also an inherently unsafe vehicle. Thomas’s blurb describes the bus as having “a driver visibility footprint that no other Type C could match.” This is true with regard to the driver’s view of the road ahead, but side visibility is grossly impaired by two over-sized window stanchions – one 9 inches wide, the other 6 inches wide and aligning perfectly with the large side-view mirrors – which make pulling out across traffic a nightmare, given the plethora of blind-spots created by these obstacles. The old FS-65 was a much better design, at least, in this important regard.

I began driving buses in 1967 for Birkenhead Municipal Transport Corporation – later, Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive. By the early 1970’s, the vehicles I was driving were far in advance of anything used to transport schoolkids in the United States today. The front loading, rear-engined, Daimler Fleetlines and Leyland Atlanteans of the era were smooth, quiet, had semi-automatic gears, pneumatic doors, and a braking capability far in advance of the Thomas Saf-T-Liner of 2008.


Above, a 1973 Leyland Atlantean – an absolute joy to drive. (Note the wrapped windscreen, curved back almost to the entrance doors for maximum all-round visibility).

Below, a 2008 Thomas Saf-T-Liner C2, a bus with the worst side visibility of any vehicle I’ve ever driven: (Inside, the yellow windscreen stanchion measures 9 inches in width, and the one behind the tiny triangular side window is 6 inches wide):


But what, I hear you ask, has any of this to do with the Aspirnaut Initiative?

The Aspirnaut Initiative is, at best, a stop-gap. The number of kids capable of benefiting long-term from the program is small, due to its environmental limitations.

Quite simply, if the school bus is to be a classroom, then it’s necessary to provide a classroom-style environment: quiet, peaceful, supervised. The present-day transport utilized to carry schoolkids satisfies none of these requirements.

Frankly, subjecting children to a three hour round trip each day is appalling. It borders on abuse. These kids lost their rural schools for one reason only – to save cash. It’s cheaper to transport them many miles each day than provide the necessary educational establishments closer to home. But, that transport also has to be the cheapest possible. Hence, the Thomas Saf-T-Liner C2, a cheap and crappy vehicle Europe wouldn’t have tolerated even back in the 1970’s.

The internet is a great tool for teaching kids. It has the capacity to beam the best possible education into small local schools, allowing one or two teachers to act in a supervisory capacity, while the main teaching is done onscreen from a larger establishment.

That way, kids can go to school locally and still receive a similar standard of education to those in the larger towns.

It makes far more sense than expecting kids to study while traveling for hours in something that has advanced little since the days of the Deadwood stagecoach.

[1] “Internet Access Turns School Buses Into Rolling Classrooms” WSJ, December 29th 2008

[2] “Merls Bus Sales”

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3 Replies to “A-Headin’ On Over The Hills”

  1. I’ve often thought how antiquated school buses are here. Thought maybe it was a peculiarity of Oklahoma, it being a somewhat backward state. Thought maybe we got all the cast-offs of more progressive areas. Seems not! I can’t imagine the gang of kids you’ve described in previous posts getting down to study in one of those ramshackle vehicles- or anywhere else for that matter! 😀

    I remember The Atlantean well – I worked for a few months at the local bus co’s offices in Torquay, around 1966, the Atlantean had just appeared, and we were always thrilled to see one heading for the bus stop on or way home of an evening. The ride was rather rolling, but smooth if I recall – maybe that’s how it got its name?

  2. I see these death-traps bounding around Newfoundland since they shut down the local schools. We are so 19th century in our educational thinking with the web at our feet. But as always, follow the money on these luddite decisions.


    Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh!
    (Happy new year in Irish)

    And many more!!!



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