High-tech buses, gadgets change the ride to school

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Richard Munson can trace the rise of technology through his school bus.

More specifically, the loud buses he drove for most of the last 27 years for the Cape Elizabeth School Department have become quiet in recent years — at least with the older students.

“A lot of the time I’d have to get on the PA system and ask them to be quiet,” Munson said. “They’d be yelling to talk to the kid next to them and I’d have to say, ‘you know, the kid next to you isn’t deaf.’ They were a lot more vocal back then.”

Now, he said, the middle school and high school students on the bus are quiet, most of them fixed on the iPads they get free from the school, or on their cell phones.

“They’re always on them when they’re on the bus,” he said.

This behavior reflects a growing trend among teens whose dominant daily mode of communication is through text messages, according to a Pew Research Center study earlier this year.

In 2011, the median number of texts sent per day by teens ages 12-17 was 60. Two years ago that number was 50. There is a gender and age divide, too: Older girls are the most avid texters, with a median of 100 texts a day in 2011, compared with boys the same age, who sent 50.

By contrast, talking on the phone by teens has seen a dramatic decrease. In 2009, only 30 percent of teens reported talking to their friends via a land line. Two years later that number had been cut by more than half, to 14 percent.

Although teens are relying more and more on technology to communicate, Munson said it’s not the same with the younger students.

“The elementary kids still do a lot of talking,” he said, and they are not as plugged in to media. “The middle school and high school students have their own music. The younger kids always want to listen to the radio.”

Greg Marles, facilities and transportation director for the School Department, said the advances in technology can also be seen in the buses themselves, which cost about $86,000.

“Buses are more electronic now,” Marles said. “Everything used to be manual. Now it’s all push-button.”

He noted that controls for the bus doors and other functions on some of the newer buses are on the steering wheel, while they used to be levers.

The buses all have interior cameras now, too, that record video and audio. Although the School Department does not have them yet, Marles said some buses even have cameras on the outside to catch drivers passing the buses when the red stop sign is up.

All these advances on the school bus allow Munson to do a better job keeping track of the kids on the bus, he said.

“I’m able to pay more attention to the kids and what’s going on around me,” he said, adding that the buses are also more comfortable. “They’re taller on the inside. When they were shorter, I used to bump my head on the ceiling.”

Despite all these changes in technology, Munson said the kids he drives – 45 elementary and 60 for the middle school and high school – still treat him well and are always polite.

“They always say good morning when they get on the bus,” he said. “They’re all good kids. You have some bad ones, but I can pick them out after all these years.”

Munson, who grew up in Portland, started work in the department as a custodian, but has spent the majority of his career driving a bus. Although he works full-time, year-round, he said he plans to retire or cut back to part time in about 2 1/2 years.

“I love the job and the people I work with,” he said. “At the end of the school year you kind of get burned out from all the driving. But, by the time summer is over, I can’t wait to get back.”

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow Will on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

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Richard Munson, a long-time bus driver for the Cape Elizabeth School Department, in front of the high school on Wednesday, Sept. 5. Munson said over the last 27 years he has watched technology change the social interactions of students who ride the bus.