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No more waiting in the cold: Rural Manitoba school division to start using school bus-tracking app

Waiting for the school bus if you're on a rural route in Manitoba can be an uncomfortable experience -- possibly even dangerous as temperatures dip.

But one rural Manitoba school division will soon be using technology it hopes will make the wait for the school bus a lot more precise — and hopefully a better experience for students, too.

With the SafeStop app, students in the Lord Selkirk School Division will be able to see the exact location of their bus and when it's expected to arrive at their stop. The software updates the expected arrival time every 30 seconds.

"So for example, if they are supposed to get picked up at 8:30 in the morning, it will show them that their bus is going to get there at 8:33, or 8:27 depending on how the route is going that day," said Mike Munday, the supervisor of transportation for the Selkirk-based division.

"And it will also give them the opportunity they can click on a button and see where the bus is physically on a map. So there will be a lot less guesswork."

Munday, who is also a parent in the division, says waiting for a school bus in a rural area presents challenges. Some students, such as his own high school-aged son, can't see their stop from their house because of a long driveway.

"So he's running down to the corner of the road and the driveway where the bus picks him up, and he's not sure if the bus has passed him yet or not. It may be –20 outside, it might be 28, it might be raining out — who knows? And he doesn't exactly know where the bus is," said Munday.

"He knows that he's on time and it should be coming, but he's still not 100 per cent sure."

That sometimes leads to confusion when the student, mistakenly thinking they've missed the bus, walks back up to the house — and then actually does miss the bus.

Munday said despite the best efforts of the drivers, factors like poor weather or difficulty loading students can sometimes make the buses late.

3,000 students per day, 50 routes

The expansive division transports about 3,000 students every day on 50 regular routes. About 75 per cent of the division's students rely on busing.

When Munday was hired two years ago, one of his tasks was to "evolve" the technology in the division.

"We were all pen and paper before. All of our maps were photocopies of photocopies of photocopies," he said.

He immediately started researching what technology was available for school buses.

He found the SafeStop App, which was developed by an American-based company. 

"So we now have all of our maps, and all of our routes are digital and we can see everything on the computer and [it] makes us more efficient," Munday said.

That, and getting GPS on all the buses, took about a year and a half.

Munday said SafeStop is widely used in other provinces and in the United States. He doesn't know of any other Manitoba school division currently using it, but says some are looking into it.

Munday said knowing where the buses are at all times is useful from a safety standpoint, but there are other useful spinoffs too.

"We also have what's called remote engine diagnostics.… So if there's a mechanical breakdown, if there's a warning light that comes on, if there's anything — they can see it live on the computer, what's actually happening."

'Slow launch' coming next week 

He says for the most part, bus drivers are on board.

"There's a couple of small concerns, but there's always going to be … when you're talking to 50 different people," Munday said.

"Some of the concerns are, 'Well, now people are going to be out just in time to meet the bus instead of being out early, now people are going to be trying to get on and off at different stops, now they're going to have parents chasing the bus to get the kids on the bus because they were late' — different things like that."

But Munday said information has been sent out to parents to remind them of existing policies, such as students having to be out five minutes before the bus arrival time, and he's hopeful that parents will co-operate.

"Our drivers, they see the value in it," said Munday. "Adding customer service, and making happier kids and happier parents is not a bad thing for them either."

While privacy is often a concern with online tracking, Munday said the SafeStop app provides security through individual family passwords that are only known to the transportation department. Users are only allowed to look at the routes their children are on, and a flag will alert the division if a user seems to be looking at unrelated routes.

The SafeStop App will have a "slow launch" the week of Dec. 18 on one route at William S. Patterson School in Clandeboye.

After the first week, parents on the route will be asked for feedback. Eventually, more routes and more schools will be added.

Munday expects all 50 of Lord Selkirk's routes to be using the app by February.