They could have made school buses any color; red, green, purple, white with stripes, or 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, most of which was safety.
The official name of the color of a school bus is National School Bus Glossy Yellow. The original color was called National School Bus Chrome but was changed because the paint color contained lead in the pigment. 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 the paint color of the buses.
Each state (which numbered 48 at the time) was in attendance at the conference, and the National Bureau of Standards (which is now the National Institute of Standards and Technology), set the color as the standard for all school buses. It was then officially known as Federal Standard №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.
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 that the color yellow is seen quickly in someone’s peripheral vision.
Paint experts from Pittsburgh Paints and DuPont came up with the shade, along with school bus manufacturers who decided on standards for how buses were built. They were funded by a $5,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Before 1939, school buses were painted in 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 the meeting in 1939 would have never taken place.