Morgan Pritchett
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A Brief History of the School Bus

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A woman gives a thumbs up from the front seat of a rusted 1955 school bus parked in grass
A 1955 school bus with a GMC chassis
Photo: Darron Birgenheier via CC

Soon enough, school buses will be traveling around neighborhoods and stopping traffic to safely allow children to exit. But have you ever wondered how school buses came about and why they’re yellow? In fact, in the beginning, that yellow hue wasn’t the standard at all.


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Early beginnings

The history of the school bus can be traced as far back as 1886 when the Wayne Works company made horse-drawn carriages known as “school hacks” or “kid hacks” in Indiana. Before then, children simply walked or rode farm wagons to get to school. That remained the case for most even after 1886, as technology then didn’t spread nearly as fast as it does now.

By 1914, the automotive industry was beginning to boom, and Wayne Works saw a great opportunity to motorize its carriages. The design remained mostly the same as the previous versions, with students sitting along the walls of the bus while facing inward. Unfortunately, there was little protection from the weather.

The front of a school bus is shown in front of a corn field
Thankfully, school bus safety has improved vastly over the years
Photo: S. Hermann & F. Richter, Pixabay via CC

Safety updates

In 1927, a Ford dealership owner named A. L. Luce built the first bus that primarily used steel panels. In 1930, Wayne Works introduced the first all-steel school bus body with safety glass windows. However, parents were still increasingly concerned for the safety of their children. This led to a turning point in the history of the school bus in 1939 when Dr. Frank Cyr organized a conference at the University of Manhattan to develop school bus standards.

A total of 44 new national standards were created, determining everything from interior dimensions to seating configurations to the famous yellow color that school buses sport today. The color was chosen because studies had shown yellow was the most eye-catching to human beings and because it was especially visible in the early morning and evening light when school buses usually operate. Though 35 states immediately switched to painting their buses yellow after the conference, it wasn’t until 1974 that the change had finally been implemented throughout the whole country.


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Since then, there have likely been hundreds or even thousands of design tweaks, innovations, and improvements made to the school bus. Fuel economy, safety, accessibility, maneuverability, and other important aspects have all been modified, revised, and improved. The most notable innovation among them is no doubt the mechanical stop signal arm that warns traffic of a stop in progress, which states began to require in the early 1950s.

The next time you think about driving around a stopped school bus (which is illegal), consider all of the hard work that was put into these machines that ultimately help keep children safe across the country.