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The Father of the Yellow School Bus: Frank W. Cyr, Ph.D.

Frank W. Cyr, Ph.D.
Transportation Mode:

It’s difficult to imagine a school bus being any color other than yellow, but more than 70 years ago there were no set standards. Back then three million American children were transported to school each day in vehicles of every make and color, including trucks and even horse-drawn wheat wagons. With no national standard in place, school bus manufacturers could not mass produce buses, which kept production costs high.

All that changed, in 1939, when a man named Frank W. Cyr organized the United States' first national standards conference for school transportation, inviting officals in the field of transportation from each of the 48 states – as well as school bus manufacturers and paint companies – to participate.

The most memorable accomplishment of the conference was a move to develop a standardized and a highly visible color for buses to help identify them to motorists. It was at this meeting that yellow was agreed to be easiest to see in the semi-darkness of early morning and late afternoon.

The distinctive yellow color, now known as “National Glossy School Bus Yellow,” is on file with the National Bureau of Standards. Following the conference, Frank Cyr became widely regarded as the Father of the Yellow School Bus.

In time, all U.S. states adopted the color with Minnesota as the last holdout, finally adopting the official color in 1974 when it retired its “Minnesota Golden Orange.”

Dr. Cyr was born on a farm near Franklin, Nebraska. He attended Grinnell College, in Iowa, and earned his BA in education at the University of Nebraska.  Afterward, he worked as a teacher and superintendent in country schools. In 1930, he joined the faculty at Columbia University in New York City. And in 1933, he received a Ph.D. from the institution’s Teachers College. Throughout the years, Cyr continued to be interested in school buses. In 1942, he chaired a federal conference that set school transportation policy during wartime.

In April 1989, he was honored at a luncheon at Teachers College marking the 50th anniversary of the original conference. When questioned about his role at the 1939 conference, Dr. Cyr said that he and the other attendees always used safety as the first criteria for school-bus standards. Indeed, by 1996, research conducted by the National Safety Council found that yellow school buses are safer than the family car and four-times safer than public transportation buses. We have Frank Cyr to thank for that.

An old fashioned school bus Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Student boarding an old school bus Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
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