The cheesewagon. The moving stop sign. The rotten banana. The humble school bus gets a bad rap as well as a ton of unfortunate nicknames. But like it or not, those iconic yellow people movers are a true part of America, and a daily fact of life for millions of kids all over the country.
Have you ever stopped to wonder just why they’re yellow? If you’re thinking that a group of evil administrators conspired decades ago to make the lives of children feel desperately cheesy on the ride to and from school each day, you’d be wrong.
It’s actually all about safety. Way back in 1939, Dr. Frank Cyr (later known as the “father of school bus yellow”) organized a national conference on school bus safety. Representatives from every state met to decide on common standards for the new-fangled buses. Remember that in 1939, cars hadn’t been around very long, and we were still trying to figure things out!
So the officials agreed upon things like how high school buses should be, and of course their color. Scientific research showed that bright colors, and yellow in particular, were the most attention-grabbing. So it makes perfect sense for all those early-morning pickups: sleepy-eyed drivers will see a bright yellow bus more quickly, and stop properly so that children can board safely.
The shade of yellow chosen at the conference became common afterwards. There’s even a “Federal Standard” (number 595C, if you’re really curious) that states this is the color to use for school buses. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends it as well, though some states get a little lax and allow bus hoods and/or fenders to be black.
In case you’re still feeling like all that yellow is a little drab, don’t worry. There are lots of ways to spruce things up. If you can get your hands on an old school bus, you could even convert it into a real home, complete with kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms.
You could also go the way of novelist and hippie extraordinaire Ken Kesey, who painted an old school bus in vivid psychedelic patterns and dubbed it “Further.” Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters drove the bus around the country in the 1960s, hung out with the Grateful Dead, and invited the country to turn on, tune in, and drop out.
Oh, and in case you were wondering about the connection between pencils and school buses: no, pencils are not often colored yellow to remind us of the cheesewagon. Actually, the tradition goes back to a time before there were school buses. In the 1800s, the best graphite came from China, and so manufacturers began painting pencils yellow, a color connected with Chinese royalty.
Watch the video for more on the history of school bus coloring, and to find out the awesomely creative name manufacturers officially call the yellow. Is school bus yellow forever a favorite of yours? Do you have any fond (or not-so-fond) memories of riding the beloved rotten banana?