The iconic yellow color of the US school bus became the standard at the 1939 Columbia Teachers conference. The unique yellow color was chosen as a safety measure, making buses easier to identify.
Dive into this guide to discover the history of school buses, including how yellow became the standard color, school bus safety, how school buses vary by country, and more school bus history.
Who decided to make school buses yellow?
Frank Cyr, who was a teacher himself and a superintendent for rural schools in South Dakota and Nebraska, is the mind behind school bus yellow, or National School Bus Glossy Yellow, if you use its official name.
In 1937, Cyr had completed a survey of ten states and discovered that there was no single, standard school transportation vehicle. In fact, children were riding to school in trucks, buses, and even carriages. The buses that were being used came in an array of colors and styles.
Cyr saw a clear need for a standard to guide school transportation, as this would increase safety and lower manufacturing costs.
The Columbia Teachers Conference
Frank Cyr, although individually credited with pioneering the yellow design, did not act alone. In 1939, the Columbia Teachers conference convened.
A popular idea at the time of the conference was to paint school buses red, white, and blue, in an effort to boost patriotism. However, this would have made school buses harder to see, and would likely not have affected patriotism at all.
The conference included representatives from education, manufacturing, and other government and industry leaders. During the deliberation, which lasted seven days, Cyr displayed fifty different shades of color to help the group choose.
They landed on the current school bus yellow and initially dubbed it National School Bus Chrome. The US General Service Administration renamed it National School Bus Glossy Yellow (also known as Color 13432).
It is interesting that, even though the specific shade of yellow was adopted as the standard for school buses, there are no federal laws mandating that school districts comply. Each state and local government can dictate guidelines for student transportation. Clearly, though, the yellow school bus is now so ubiquitous that there is no reason to change the color.
Even though the color was seemingly chosen at random, the shade of yellow that the conference attendees landed on actually has an added safety benefit.
Colors are measured and described by wavelength, with different wavelengths corresponding to different activation of our eyes’ photoreceptors. Interestingly, school bus yellow activates both cones in our eyes, which means that our eyes generate twice as much of a signal to our brain when we see that shade of yellow. This makes the color stand out to us more, making it much harder to miss, even if it is in our peripheral vision.
Even though it is unknown if the conference members took that scientific information into account while deciding on the color, it is clear that the overall goal of the meeting was to improve student transportation safety. So, whether by random chance or careful planning, the conference ended up picking the ideal color for school buses.
Today, the school bus transportation system is the largest transit system in the US. However, school buses only account for about one percent of traffic fatalities every year. According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, students transported by regulated school buses are seventy times safer than passengers in regular vehicles.
This is due to the strict regulations governing school buses, of which color is only one piece, and the specific traffic laws regarding how drivers should interact with school buses.
School buses have featured prominently in US history, specifically during the civil rights movement. The famous case Brown v. Board of Education began with Black parents demanding that their children be provided with school transportation.
But the issue was not just limited to school transportation in general. Schools, including transportation, were highly segregated. In fact, one law in Georgia mandated that school buses carrying Black students should have their front fenders painted black. And in the 1970s, school buses were front and center in Boston’s desegregation efforts, when they implemented busing programs as a solution.
What does the future look like for the school bus?
As technology progresses, especially in the transportation realm, there will continue to be new regulations and standards proposed and adopted. The Columbia Teachers conference still convenes every five years, and they continue to work to improve school transportation.
Likely, school buses will begin to implement cleaner fuel technology, with most buses being fully electric in the near future.
When was the first yellow bus produced?
Yellow school buses began to be mass-produced shortly after the conference in 1939. However, it took a while for every school district to adapt to the new standards. It was not until 1974 that all US school buses were yellow.
Are yellow buses used in other countries?
Many countries do not provide standardized school transportation for students, so students rely on other public transportation instead. The countries that do offer school bus transport do not regulate the bus color, focusing instead on other safety features and laws.
They will typically feature a sign identifying them as a school bus and have a distinctive look from other public buses. However, yellow is still a popular color choice in Italy, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Canada.
Hopefully, this article answered your question of why school buses are yellow. The idea originated with Frank Cyr and was adopted as the standard by members of the Columbia Teachers conference in 1939.
The yellow school bus color improves the safety of school buses, due to the color’s unique ability to activate both photoreceptors in the eye. The yellow school bus is commonplace in the US, but not in most other countries, even though many countries do use some yellow buses as part of their transportation systems.
Finally, the school bus has featured prominently in US history, especially in the civil rights movement and the fight for desegregation, and continues to adapt to the future.