Why Are School Buses Yellow?

Why Are School Buses Yellow?
You don’t have to have children to know that school buses are yellow. You see them everywhere – large, unwieldy contraptions full of America’s screaming, crying future. Their appearance is so commonplace, and so ingrained in our subconscious, that most people have never even stopped to wonder why all school buses are the same color, or why that color happens to be yellow. Well, the answer goes back nearly 80 years.

History of School Buses

Dr. Frank Cyr of Columbia University was entrusted with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study the safety and design of school buses around the United States (at a cost of just $5,000). In 1939, once he had done his research, he organized a national conference on school bus standards and invited a variety of transportation officials, vehicle manufacturers, and paint companies. Attendees at this conference collaborated on a wide range of issues and came up with a long list of new requirements intended to make it as safe as possible for children to travel in school buses.

Among the new standards were rules as to the chassis length, aisle width, and ceiling height. They also mandated forward-facing seats, flashing lights, and a variety of other safety features. One of the key results of this conference was the decision to require all school buses to be painted yellow. Actually, not exactly yellow, but more of a combination of yellow and orange. Made using lead chromate, or “chrome yellow,” the official color became known, and still is today, as “National School Bus Chrome.”

So, why this color? Why are school buses yellow?

Why Are School Buses Yellow?

It is Noticeable

There is some debate over this as, depending on how you define “noticeable” or “attractiveness,” the answer could be either red or yellow. Many studies have concluded that red is the most appealing color, and that it can be seen from the farthest distance. Yellow, on the other hand, is brighter and more likely to stand out among other colors (it has been proven to be the color that most quickly catches our attention). Also, at the time, red was already being used for traffic lights and stop signs, and had acquired a connotation of danger.

It Works Well in Dim Lighting

Since school buses mainly travel early in the morning and late in the day, they chose yellow because it is not just apparent in full sunlight, but is also very noticeable in slightly dimmer light conditions just after dawn and before dusk. The specific shade was chosen to be bright enough to be both readily noticeable and the perfect shade to show contrasting black lettering in semi-dark conditions.

Peripheral Vision

Not only does it attract the eye and show up well in vague conditions, but scientists have shown that yellow is 1.24 times more likely to be noticed by your peripheral vision. This is a particularly important trait with regard to vehicle safety, since a significant contributing factor in many vehicle collisions is one or both drivers’ peripheral visions not registering the presence of another vehicle.

Outside North America

While not nearly universal, there are many other countries that also use yellow for their school buses. In some cases, they have come to the same safety conclusions as experts in North America. For some, however, it is simply a matter of following the common global standard, and for others it is a matter of logistics. Cuba, for example, imports all their school buses from Canada, which paints its buses yellow.

Is There Any Connection to Yellow Taxi Cabs?


No. While this has been theorized, in 1914, John D. Hertz of Chicago actually chose yellow for his Yellow Cab Company for branding purposes, a full 25 years before yellow became the chosen color of school buses. It is realistic, however, to assume that Hertz also chose yellow for many of the same reasons.

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