x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Smartcards will log pupils on and off school buses

Dubai's largest school bus operator will have GPS tracking on its 800 buses, along with smartcards that allow 40,000 pupils to log on and off the vehicles.

School buses in Dubai will be tracked by GPS, while pupils will loh on and off the vehicles..
School buses in Dubai will be tracked by GPS, while pupils will loh on and off the vehicles..

DUBAI // Parents concerned about the safety of their children on school buses can rest easier this autumn. Dubai's largest school bus operator will have global positioning system (GPS) tracking on its 800 buses, along with smartcards that allow 40,000 pupils to log their boarding and exits from the vehicles, when schools open in September.

School Transport Services (STS), a private service, aims to build on the 32 safety measures mandated last year by the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) with a Dh1.7 million live network that observes bus speeds and monitor passengers. Being able to pinpoint locations also means a replacement bus can be dispatched if a vehicle breaks down. The new systems would help to provide schools and parents with information in case of delays because of traffic jams, accidents, sandstorms and flooding, said ML Augustine, the managing director of STS.

"We will immediately know if a child has not got out of the bus, maybe because he fell asleep," Mr Augustine said. "We can't take the risk of even one child being left behind. We can also monitor speed and harsh braking." The new cards will carry individual barcodes should help allay parents' concern about children being left on the bus. The driver will use a hand-held machine to scan the cards when children get on and off the bus. The cost of the new systems will not be passed on to parents.

The occasionally harsh weather can turn a child being left behind on a bus into a deadly situation. Two months ago in Qatar, a girl of four died after being locked in a school bus. In Abu Dhabi last year, a child died after being left alone on a bus that took her to school. Parents welcomed STS's initiatives. Judy Peters, whose children go to Wellington International School, said: "It brings me peace of mind [that] people will know where exactly where my child's bus is stuck in an emergency. My other fear is of kids left behind on the bus, so the cards work for me. It's infrequent here, but when it does rain the GPS can warn of pile-ups."

While drivers and attendants already check buses to ensure all children have got off, the new measures will add another level of safety. In the STS control room, four officials monitor a large screen that plots the movement of its buses. Emergency services, school numbers and bus driver contacts are pinned to the walls. A screen in Mr Augustine's office flashes detailed information about each bus, including the driver's name, with charts highlighting "today's speed alert" and "today's maximum speed". "Sitting in my office I will see the complete movement of buses," he said. "If they cross the speed limit, we can immediately pick up the phone and call them." Schools will also have screens to monitor their buses.

Of 150,000 pupils in private schools in Dubai, 84,000 use school buses. STS services almost half of that market. The remaining children are dropped off by parents or travel in private vans. The regulations put in place by the RTA last year included the installation and use of seat belts, a speed limit of 80kph and the removal of folding seats. Spot checks by the authority had ensured compliance, said Hussain Norsherwan, a senior manager at Arab Falcon Bus Rental, which leases 50 buses to seven Dubai schools.

"Before the RTA regulations, schools were not so involved," he said. "Now, every minute, people from schools are in touch with us. We ran the buses for staff pick-ups in the evening. Now we cannot use school buses for anything else. It's more specialised but it's all for safety." Arab Falcon has implemented initiatives that include nannies in buses that carry nursery pupils, and improved communication with parents.

@Email:rtalwar@thenational.ae