Dallas County Schools -- the local school district with no schools or students but lots and lots of school buses -- sent word last Friday that it was preparing to unveil the "School Bus of the Future," and that this futuristic vehicle will "will revolutionize school bus transit and exponentially increase the safe passage of students to and from school." We were intrigued.
My money personally was on some sort of armored personnel carrier, which the Department of Defense is handing out like peppermints. Web editor Gavin Cleaver, a deeply cynical British man, speculated that it's "probably just some unemployed guy in a battered old Ford Galaxy," which would be more in keeping with tradition.
It turns out the School Bus of the Future looks very much like the school bus of the past, i.e. big, yellow and ungainly with a retractable stop sign.
That, Dallas County Schools explained today in a press release, is because the improvements are mostly invisible from the outside.
A brief glance won't tell you the new buses are equipped with voice-over-IP communication systems, or that they transmit data on speed, location and acceleration in real-time. The "Thumbs-Up!" thumbprint scanner, which keeps track of which kids are on the bus and whether they're supposed to be there, is also hard to see unless you're really pressing your face to the glass, as are the multiple interior security cameras.
Slightly easier to notice is the rear-facing camera, dubbed -- no joke -- the "Pedophile Finder."
"I wish we could have come up with a better name for it," says Dallas County Schools spokeswoman Allison Allison. (Yes, that's the correct name.) The camera, mounted on the top portion of the school bus and positioned to capture the license plate of tailing vehicles, isn't just to catch pedophiles. It could be a parent who lost custody of their child, or a kidnapper. But "Pedophile Finder" was the name that stuck.
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"The bus driver can't tell if somebody's tailing him but if they recognize a pattern of a car following a bus" based on video, they can take appropriate measures.
The whole setup is called BusGuard, which was developed by DCS and Louisiana-based Force Multiplier Solutions. DCS provides buses for all Dallas County school districts, serving some 425,000 students. All 1,900 buses will be outfitted with the equipment by the fall, Allison says.
A full list of specs can be found here, along with the comforting reminder that "in the event of a serious terrorist or hi-jacking emergency, the control of the management system can be transferred to the appropriate law enforcement agency."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.