Noise on the School Bus: Dangerous on Many Levels

As anyone who’s ever been on a school bus before knows, the bus can get loud. Very loud. And as any driver of a school bus can tell you, the noise level is something that is often hard to control.

These factors can add up to a situation that is potentially hazardous, in more ways than one.

Noise on the bus—which is primarily due to the large group of rowdy young people on board, but can be exacerbated by outside noises and the hum of the bus’ engine—can create a distraction for school bus drivers, causing their concentration to be diverted away from the road and toward the din surrounding them.

It can also mask disruptive behavior that could become more serious. Students may engage in bullying when they are on a loud bus because they know the driver is unable to hear them.


For bus drivers, excessive noise can also lead to a number of physiological and psychological responses, including sleep disturbance, fatigue and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Even low-level noise that is annoying or that interferes with activities or concentration can causes stress and similar health effects as high level noise.

Stephen Dawson calls the excessive noise on the school bus “a nationwide epidemic.” A teacher for 31 years (now retired), Dawson knows something about noise levels. In his classroom, the noise levels were so bad he was finally compelled to do something about it.

In 2008, with the help of an Oregon State University engineering professor, he developed a noise level alarm. They device was programmed so that if the noise in his classroom reached a certain level, the alarm would sound.

Dawson, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., said the alarm worked well in the classroom, to the point where students knew their noise levels were getting too high. He believes the alarm would work equally well in the school bus, but that it needs to be engineered for the bus.

He hopes to have an electronics company help him develop a prototype, or perhaps get a research grant from the state. But funding is scarce in Washington which, like most states, is suffering from severe budget cuts.

Dawson’s commitment to addressing the noise level on buses, however, isn’t limited to pushing the benefits of the alarm. He has made it a personal cause, writing to local officials and starting a Facebook page (“School Bus Drivers Against Noise and Other Issues That Compromise Safety”) to make others aware of the problem.

“This is a safety issue,” he told <<School Transportation Director>>. “Not just for the school bus, but for others on the road. And bus drivers have very little power to do anything.”

In September, Dawson wrote a 23-page letter to his senator, Patty Murray, outlining the problem. In it, he asks the senator to help procure funds—about $1 million—for a study proposed by the Transportation Research Board and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that will investigate school bus driver distractions, including noise levels.

The study, proposed last year, would “collect naturalistic, real-time data of school bus drivers performing their normal driving tasks during bus routes. This data would be thoroughly analyzed to determine distraction sources experienced by these bus drivers and their association with the occurrence of safety-critical events,” according to the TRB’s website.

James Kraemer, who runs, a website on school bus safety, is another advocate of safe noise levels on the school bus.  

Kraemer, a former school bus driver, knows the issue firsthand. After a day of transporting children in a bus with a very loud V-8 diesel engine, he would return home with headaches and ringing in his ears. “The Mrs. would complain I had the TV volume too high,” he says.

The issue of noise on buses “is too often ignored in the school bus transportation industry,” he adds. “That is changing as parents and some industry interests are discovering the dreadful effects too much noise can have on an environment where 70 some kids and one bus driver have no escape for up to an hour or more inside a big yellow tin can.”

But not enough is changing, he thinks. “Our industry as a whole, both in the U.S and Canada, shied away from this issue since the beginning days,” he says. “People believe that buses are loud and that’s part of the job.”

Like Dawson, he thinks a TRB investigation is urgently needed. Until then, he says, schools need to address the issue by writing up students for loud and unruly behavior, and encouraging safe bus-riding practices, like having students face forward, speak softly and keep their arms and legs out of the aisle.

In the end, Stephen Dawson says, the issue of loud students on the bus boils down to setting limits.

“Just as students shouldn’t be goofing off and being noisy during a fire drill, they shouldn’t behave this way on the bus either,” he says. “If you have clear standards and clear expectations, then the majority of students will follow them.  It takes away the ambiguity of what quiet is.”



<<BOX 1>>

The Health Effects of Noise

Noise-related hearing loss has been listed as one of the most prevalent occupational health concerns in the United States for more than 25 years. Thousands of workers every year suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels. Since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that nearly 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. In 2009 alone, BLS reported more than 21,000 hearing loss cases.

Excessive noise in the workplace can also lead to:

  • Annoyance and speech interference
  • Interference with concentration and thought processes
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Fatigue and aggression
  • Reduced immune response
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Stress
  • Hypertension
  • Gastric ulcers


<<END BOX 1>>


<<BOX 2>>

Noise may be a problem in your workplace if:

  • You hear ringing or humming in your ears when you leave work.
  • You have to shout to be heard by a coworker an arm's length away.
  • You experience temporary hearing loss when leaving work.


<<END BOX 2>>