School-bus tracking goes high-tech

Satellite-based system follows each vehicle to boost safety

First Student bus drivers receive training on hand-held Zonar devices. Zonar is an electronic fleet inspection, tracking and management system recently installed on School District #51 buses

Though school bus riders won’t notice the difference, the district will soon be keeping a keener eye on its student cargo.

First Student, the contractor that provides bus service to School District 51, has installed an electronic and satellite-based tracking system called Zonar to increase cost-effectiveness and student safety on the 160 buses throughout the district.

Zonar tracks the exact whereabouts of each bus at any given time, and it performs electronic vehicle-safety inspections on all the buses in the system.

Glenda Lamont, spokeswoman for First Student corporate headquarters in Cincinnati, said the company plans to install the system on its buses in Montrose, with the goal of installing Zonar on its nationwide fleet of school buses over the next two years.

“The main reason we use it is so we’ll always know the exact location of our buses. Safety is our main concern,” Lamont said. “We’re constantly updating our buses, and this is part of our overall technology strategy.”

Zonar tracks fuel usage for each bus and the amount of time a bus engine idles. That information can help decrease fuel costs, according to Lamont.

And there are additional advantages.

“If there’s ever a major incident — a traffic jam, a road block that would cause a delay — we’ll know about it and can communicate that to schools and parents,” Lamont said.

Dave Montoya, director of transportation for District 51, said Zonar will help when bus drivers are out of radio or cell phone contact.

“It’s a great thing for us,” he said. “It’s not about a check on driver activities, but the whereabouts of a bus location.”

Montoya said he read about Zonar and saw it at trade shows, and it was on his wish-list for the district.

First Student is picking up the cost of the system. Lamont said First Student will invest $15 million for its fleet of buses nationwide, but he did not provide specific costs for District 51.

Montoya said no direct funding for Zonar is coming from the district budget.

District bus drivers, contracted by First Student, received training on how to use Zonar the week before school started.

“Our employees love it,” Lamont said. “It makes their lives so much easier.”

Not all employees agree.

“I don’t like it, because it’s not necessary from the driver’s point of view,” said a bus driver who asked not to be identified. “We’re still doing the same paperwork. It lets you know if a headlight is out, but someone still needs to tell the lot technician.”

Zonar was in use for the first day of school this year but was taken out of service until this week for work on some technical issues. Drivers are now using the system for inspections and soon will enable Zonar’s satellite tracking technology. The fully functioning system is expected to be in use by mid-October, according to the district.


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