They could have made school buses any color; red, green, purple, white with stripes, rainbow. Why then are school buses yellow? Was it because yellow is a happy color, and kids just love going to school? Afraid not. The yellow color on a school bus came about for some practical reasons, the most of which was safety.
The official name of the color of a school bus is National School Bus Glossy Yellow. It originated in 1939 after Dr. Frank W. Cyr, a university professor at Columbia in New York, held a conference that officially established the parameters and standards for school bus construction. This included among them the paint color of the buses. The original color was called National School Bus Chrome, but has since changed since school bus chrome contained lead in the pigment. The color was adopted because black lettering was easy to see in the early morning hours and during the late afternoon. Another reason it was chosen was because the color yellow is seen quickly in someone’s peripheral vision.
Paint experts from Pittsburgh Pains and DuPont came up with the shade, along with school bus manufacturers who decided on standards of how buses were built. They were funded by a $5,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, . Each of the states (which numbered 48 at the time) were in attendance at the conference, and the National Bureau of Standards (which is now the National Institute of Standards and Technolgy), set the color as the standard for all school buses. It was then officially known as Federal Standard No. 595a, Color 13432. A 42-page pamphlet eventually resulted from the conference that set all the standards on how school buses would be painted and manufactured from then on.
Before 1939, school buses were any range of colors, since there was no standard. Kids were even being moved to school on horse-drawn wagons. Interestingly, the first “school bus” was built in 1827, in London, United Kingdom. It was designed to carry 25 children. School buses weren’t the first mode of public transportation to use the yellow color, however. As early as 1914, the Yellow Cab Company, founded by John D. Hertz of rental car fame, used the color yellow on all his cars as a way to brand his business. It is not known whether this had any influence on school buses eventually becoming yellow.
So when you see a yellow school bus, first remember to stop, and be satisfied knowing why they’re painted that distinctive yellow color. Then ponder the idea that you could have been staring at a pink and purple polka-dotted bus if this meeting would have never taken place.