LEWISTON — Sixteen of 55 school buses in the city are being equipped with GPS tracking devices this fall.

After staff training is complete next month, parents will be able to track the location of the buses.

If the pilot program goes well, GPS devices will eventually be installed on all school buses in Lewiston, Superintendent Bill Webster said.

The School Department contracts Hudson Bus Lines-Student Transportation of America to provide the buses. Student Transportation of America is the third largest school bus contractor in the United States.

The idea of GPS use came up last winter after 14 buses broke down or wouldn’t start on Feb. 24 when temperatures dipped to 17 below zero.

In the spring, the School Department held a six-week program for parents to log on to the Internet and see on a Web page the location of their child’s bus. It went well.

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“It was very helpful to see if it was running late,” said Sarah Shannon, who has three children who attend Geiger Elementary School. “If I was waiting, if the bus was stuck in construction, I could see where it was.”

The program will be especially useful in the winter when sometimes a bus can run 20 minutes late, she said. Knowing where the bus is would help her decide “do I wait with them or do I drive them to school and be five minutes late for work?”

Ron Chartier, another parent who participated in the pilot program, also gave the program a thumbs-up. “You could see if the bus was moving, if the bus was delayed.”

Chartier walks his children to the bus stop. He was able to look at the app on his smartphone and see how far away the bus was and when it would be pulling up.

“It was very helpful,” he said.

Lewiston School Department Transportation Director Butch Pratt said the GPS devices have been purchased from Unite GPS of Portland, a company that also provides GPS units for Lisbon school buses.

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The cost is $649 per unit. The life span is about 10 years, so the annual cost is $65 per bus, Pratt said.

“If there are updates they will take care of it,” he said. “They install them and set them up. Everything’s through them.”

Like parents, Pratt said he likes having GPS tracking on buses. “It shows you where the bus is, as it’s moving down the street, what street it’s approaching, whether it’s taking a right here or a left there.”

Sharing bus locations with parents is a side benefit, Pratt said. As transportation director, he wants to be able to track every bus.

“If something goes wrong, if we get a call that something is not right, we’d be able to see where the bus is,” he said. “Now it’s just radio contact with drivers.”

In some parts of Lewiston, radio communication isn’t good, Pratt said. And when trying to talk to a bus driver, it’s hard to hear drivers over the noise of 40 to 60 students.

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Plus, drivers don’t need the distraction of talking to headquarters over the radio, Pratt said.

“They’re driving defensively, keeping an eye on the road, looking for the guy drinking coffee, talking on his cellphone who just blew through the stop sign, or looking for the dog or the ball that bounced across the road. Plus they’re trying to keep an eye on the kids. It’s a tough job.”

Access to each bus location won’t be made available to the public, only to parents who have kids on the buses.

The 16 buses with GPS units make runs to Geiger, Martel and Montello elementary schools, and Lewiston middle and high schools. The bus numbers are: 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 13, 19, 20, 22, 25, 28, 31, 52 and 86.

Chris Bunnell, CEO of UniteGPS of Portland, said he started his company after he was frustrated as a parent that he didn’t know where his children’s bus was.

“And I remember waiting for buses in cold New England winters,” he said. He didn’t want to stand in the cold too early, “but if I missed the bus, my parents would get upset.”

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