There is a prevailing stereotype that the driver's seat on a school bus is an immovable chair from which a driver strains to reach various switches, all the while monitoring a feisty group of children in the back.
That scenario has grown less common over the last decade (save for student mischief) as school districts in Northern Virginia have replaced older buses with sleeker, safer versions that are more comfortable.
In Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, school district transportation officials said the new buses purchased for the coming academic year will eventually boost retention rates and help recruit new drivers. Large school districts buy at least a few new buses, which cost $60,000 to $80,000, almost every year. The latest models feature ergonomically advanced driver's seats, transportation officials said.
Prince William and Loudoun have bought several of the new buses, called C2s, that are being manufactured by Thomas Built Buses of North Carolina with numerous bells and whistles. As with many passenger cars, the driver's seat in the C2 offers lumbar support and can be moved up and down. The steering column is adjustable, and the dashboard has several controls -- such as the warning light that goes on during a stop -- within easy reach. The windshield is taller and wider, without a metal divider running down the middle, and provides a more expansive view.
"The old thought is that bus driver seats are a big wide open area with lots of gauges and switches without rhyme or reason," said Lenny Bernstein, president-elect of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, a group based in Albany, N.Y. "But now the driver feels like they're getting into the cockpit of an airplane. When they get into the driver's seat of a school bus now, they feel like they're in command of a major vessel."
Buses have undergone rapid technological changes since the days when drivers reached to pull a lever to open the doors. Today, most bus doors open with the push of a button. Transmissions are automatic, not manual, and the buses often have air conditioning.
School buses usually are replaced every 10 to 15 years and last for about 250,000 miles.
"In older buses, when there was no seat adjustment at all, you had to make do. A lot of times, we had to put wooden blocks on the pedals" to help drivers who couldn't reach them, said Michael Lunsford, transportation director for the Loudoun school system, which will try out the new C2 bus this coming school year.
"The C2 is the first bus that's using car-level technology," Lunsford said. "I've talked to other school officials, and they've got a number of them. So far, everyone has glowing reports. I think they've raised the bar, and other manufacturers are going to have to pick up this technology."
Fairfax school officials are also buying new buses for the school year, although not C2 models. Instead, they are buying 110 buses made by AmTran Corp. that have door controls on the steering wheel, two-way radios mounted in front of the driver instead of overhead and a panel to the driver's left for lights and heaters.
"Manufacturers are tending to pay more attention to the needs of drivers, as we recognize that drivers are a critical part of this industry," said Linda Farbry, transportation director for Fairfax County schools, where there are nearly 200 driver vacancies for the upcoming academic year. "New buses probably help more with the retention of the drivers. After you've driven a bus for awhile, you begin to recognize some of the flaws."
In Prince William, schools transportation director Ed Bishop touted the C2 model for its tighter turning radius. With the region's many subdivisions, a maneuverable bus comes in handy.
"They have a 40 percent smaller turning radius than other buses. While you can't spin them on a dime, you can more easily get into tight places like small cul-de-sacs without backing up," Bishop said. "I would say backing up is one of the more dangerous maneuvers on a school bus."