Back in April 1939 and armed with a $5,000 grant supplied by the Rockefeller Foundation, Columbia University Teachers College professor Frank Cyr took a tour of ten states to gauge the extent of school transportation issues. What he found proved that student transportation was in a sorry state—many students had no dependable way to get to school and the ones who did often traveled in unsafe, unstandardized buses in the over 100,000 school districts that existed back then (in contrast to the roughly 13,000 that exist today). One of the huge variations in school transportation that he saw? Bus color.
Seeing a need to fix this system, Cyr organized a conference—one that would change the future of school buses forever. School officials and transportation specialists convened to set much-needed standards for buses, including those for color, height, and width as well as safety rules that hadn’t previously been set or that varied by state.
There were many different bus colors in the United States before this conference; several districts even planned to have red, white, and blue buses as a way of promoting patriotism among students. Cyr presented his new options to education officials, a reported “50 shades ranging from lemon yellow to deep orange-red.” The matter was settled quickly. Yellow, or “National School Bus Glossy Yellow,” as it is officially called by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was chosen for its high visibility and the way it emphasized the bold, black writing that would be on the side of each bus to denote its respective school district, important factors for vehicles that travel during early morning and late afternoon hours. Color has always been important to our daily routine—check out the reason our traffic lights are red, yellow, and green. Thirty-five states made the changes promptly, and every state was on board by 1974.