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— School officials used federal stimulus dollars to install Zonar, a transportation safety system, in all Decatur school buses.

Appropriately, the new system was installed during National School Bus Safety week, Oct. 19-23.

Zonar is used by many trucking companies, public transportation buses and school buses. It works as a maintenance safety-check system and also equips the buses with global positioning systems so their exact speed of travel and location can be tracked from a central computer.

The new system’s cost to the school was $21,294, according to curriculum specialist Dawn Stewart. It was paid for out of the $459,000 the district is set to receive from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Bus drivers using Zonar will each have a handheld device that looks a little like a big yellow TV remote to do their daily maintenance inspections instead of traditional paper check lists. Drivers will walk to each zone of the bus and scan tags with a radio frequency identification chip inside. Scanning the chip will automatically bring up the list of items to be checked in that particular zone, and drivers can give each item a green light or mark it yellow or red.

Yellow means the item needs attention from the maintenance department - such as a scratch or ding - and red means the bus cannot operate until the item is fixed. A flat tire or a broken window would be an example of a red condition.

Bus drivers will do a pre- and post-trip inspection with the handheld device and a quick inspection when the bus is loaded with students.

The inspection includes all the Department of Transportation required components, plus a list of customized inspection points for the Decatur School District,according to Brandon Lucas, national support representative for Zonar.

Lucas was in Decatur on Oct. 20, teaching bus drivers and maintenance staff how to use the new system.

“The advantage of a verified inspection as opposed to a paper inspection is we know the inspection is done properly,” Lucas said. He explained that Zonar gets drivers in a better position to do a good inspection because they are required to walk to all the zones around the bus to scan the RFID tags. Zonar also encourages drivers to note defects, and it tells them exactly what problems to look for, he said.

Once the drivers have completed the inspection, they set their handheld device in a docking station near the drivers seat. The docking station not only recharges the handheld devices but uploads all the information - in just three seconds - to a ground traffic-control Web site where transportation managers and mechanics can access it.

Transportation managers can also use the ground traffic-control Web site to track the buses in real time. Zonar’s GPS system uses local cell phone networks rather than satellite technology to track each bus’ location, speed and mileage, as well as its stop time, idle time, route and general activity, according to Lucas.

“It makes everyone more accountable for bus safety,” said special programs coordinator Bobby King.

Most local school districts already use Zonar on their buses, according to Steward.

“It’s really an incredible system. I’m very thankful that Decatur will be able to implement it in our school. Those dollars are being put to some very useful projects,” she said.

Decatur’s transportation department will also be updating the onboard surveillance cameras in the buses. The new cameras will record digitally and produce a clearer steadier video.

News, Pages 13 on 11/04/2009

Print Headline: Zonar installed in Decatur buses

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