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Why Are School Buses Yellow?

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Depending on their playground status, people who took the bus to school as kids either have fond or not-so-fond memories of that childhood rite of passage: those giant leathery seats, the difficult to open vertical windows, and the flashing red stop sign that stuck out from the driver’s side. Perhaps the most easily recognizable aspect of the school bus is its unique yellow hue, which has remained the same for decades. Just how was this color chosen?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, kids came to school in any vehicle that could get them there before the bell rang, whether it was a horse-drawn carriage or a wooden cart on a truck chassis. There was no uniform means of transport, a fact that frustrated both teachers and parents—who were concerned about students’ safety—and the companies that made the vehicles, who needed standardization for mass production (which would enable them to turn a profit).

In 1939, using $5000 in funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and following his own study of school transportation, Columbia University professor Frank Cyr organized a conference at Teachers College on the University’s Manhattan campus. He gathered together engineers and specialists from places like the Ford Motor Company and DuPont to establish national standards for school buses.

The conference created 44 school bus standards, including height and width specifications—and the vehicles’ color. To figure out which hue was best, the group laid out a wide array of shades from light lemon-yellow to dark orange-red along the wall in one of the rooms of Columbia’s Grace Dodge Hall, eventually narrowing the field down to three shades of yellow. Golden yellow was ultimately chosen by the specialists because the distinctive tint—originally called “National School Bus Chrome” and later updated to “National School Bus Glossy Yellow”—is the easiest color to see during the early morning and evening hours when buses operate. Bold black lettering covering the chassis completed the eye-catching look, which Cyr and company hoped would make people more careful when walking or driving near the buses.

Following the conference, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration registered the color in their records as a Federal Standard No. 595a, Color 13432. Initially, about 35 states adhered to the standardization; by 1974, all states used Glossy Yellow on their buses (the lone hold-out was Minnesota, which painted its buses “Minnesota Golden Orange” before making the change).

Buses aren’t the only vehicles to use the distinctive color; you’ll also find it on European mail trucks and cabs buzzing around New York City.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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