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November 01, 2008  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

A momentous month

by Derek Graham


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I have had the privilege of serving as president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) for the past two years. Two quick years, beginning in November 2006.

This article is not about waxing nostalgic on the accomplishments of the association during that period of time nor the many things left undone. But when I was asked about my time in this role, I couldn’t help but be struck by how the last two years in the school bus world have been shaped by the events of that same month, November 2006.

Three key events of that month laid the groundwork for a lot of discussion, opportunity and action in pupil transportation that continues today:

 

  • State director roundtable results in security wish-list
  • American School Bus Council (ASBC) comes online
  • Huntsville, Ala., school bus crash

    Taking aim at security
    At this writing, I have just returned from the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) regional workshop in Nashville, Tenn. Among attendees from trucking and bus companies, a half-dozen of us working in pupil transportation learned about highway security and heard references to, and an emphasis on, school buses in the world of security that we would not have heard two years ago. This is real progress, folks.

    It has been obvious to most of us, since 9/11, that school buses are vulnerable and could be attractive targets for terrorists. In response, School Bus Watch and School Transportation Security Awareness emerged as training modules for drivers and others, and a new chapter on security was developed for the National Congress on School Transportation book.

    In November 2006, previous NASDPTS President Pete Japikse of Ohio, along with state directors John Green of California and Pete Baxter of Indiana, led the state directors in a roundtable discussion and working session designed to identify and prioritize our security needs.

    The results of this session were fleshed out in cooperation with the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) and the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) to produce a white paper of sorts, documenting and explaining these needs, complete with dollar figures.

    This information was particularly useful to legislators such as U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, who picked up on this and inserted language in the “9/11 bill” requiring an assessment of the school transportation industry.

    TSA, suffering from funding woes like many of the rest of us, was slow to start but really kicked it into high gear in the past months by hiring a company to do the assessment and holding conference calls and face-to-face meetings to reach out to the school bus community — all resulting from that phrase in the 9/11 legislation.

    What’s the behind-the-scenes story of how such a thing came about? Well, Bob — as former state superintendent in North Carolina — was my boss at one time, so our agency works closely with his office.

    But we can’t take credit for this. It all began through the relationships built around the meeting table of the ASBC, involving not only state directors but NSTA, NAPT and school bus manufacturers.

    Working side by side, industry wide
    The ASBC is a unique coalition of associations and manufacturers. In addition to being able to participate in some groundbreaking work for the school bus world, I had the opportunity to work side by side with other industry stalwarts for nearly three years as a NASDPTS representative.

    As we work to spread the gospel of school bus transportation to parents, the public and legislators, I have learned a great deal about various players in our industry and what makes them tick.

    The most important revelation (although it shouldn’t be surprising) is that we are all motivated by providing safe transportation for students to and from school. Contractors, manufacturers, local directors and state directors each have their own bent, but we have a lot more in common than not.

    ASBC’s research tells us a lot about what parents think about the safety of their children and the bus ride to and from school. They trust the bus, but we need to build their trust in the driver. They appreciate the access to education that the school bus provides, but they don’t understand the seat belt issue.

    We must be ambassadors who promote the many benefits of school bus transportation. The ASBC toolkit (available at www.americanschoolbuscouncil.org) will help you do that.

    One of the key programs of the ASBC is Love the Bus. Let me tell you, I love Love the Bus. Check out pictures on my Web page www.ncbussafety.org under Archived News.

    This is a low-budget, relatively low-effort way to generate positive publicity for school bus transportation. And even if the press doesn’t show, it’s still a great way to show appreciation for school bus drivers (and technicians).

    As I leave my position as NASDPTS president, I turn over my seat at the ASBC table to Charlie Hood, state director in Florida. I already miss the ASBC meetings at our little, non-descript airport hotel and the relationships and friendships formed there.

    But I am looking forward to joining you as we all help ASBC spread the good news of school transportation — even (perhaps especially) when things aren’t going our way.

    In the wake of Huntsville
    The tragedy of the fatal crash in Huntsville got the attention of anyone interested in transporting students safely. Aside from the obvious seat belt issues raised, I hope it has spurred all of us to remind drivers that their decision whether or not to wear their seat belt not only impacts their own safety but the very lives of the children entrusted to them.

    But remember: Parents expect seat belts and — in my own opinion — there are not enough of “us” to explain to all of “them” what compartmentalization is and why it works.

    Several of us testified for the Alabama governor’s seat belt task force, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held a first-ever industry hearing on the issue of seat belts on school buses, which more and more is moving to a discussion of lap-shoulder belts.

    Even the U.S. secretary of transportation, Mary Peters, showed up in my home school district — which has implemented a few lap-shoulder belt buses — to make an announcement of NHTSA’s rulemaking on the subject.

    NASDPTS, along with many other local, state and national entities, commented on the rulemaking, and we anxiously await the results to help us with “next steps” from a policy perspective. The debate continues.

    Cost is a crucial factor in times when diesel engine costs are skyrocketing and the fuel itself has districts across the country scrambling to balance the budget.

    I can tell you from experience in our state that lap-shoulder belts can work. Their presence can improve discipline significantly. But kids will be kids, and they will not always wear belts properly — so does that make things better or worse? As I said, the debate continues, but NASDPTS as a whole recognizes the potential benefits, and we recognize that parents expect belts. But the funding is a tremendous obstacle.

    Keeping up the good fight
    It has been a quick two years, indeed. I have learned a lot, and our industry has learned a lot. And while security, ASBC and seat belts have been prominent, there are many other things going on that impact state directors and the rest of the industry.

    Other federal rulemakings, transit agencies providing school bus service prohibited by Federal Transit Administration rules, and local districts considering service reductions in response to steep fuel prices are just some of the other issues that face us.

    There will always be something. And we won’t be able to reach resolution on all of the issues that are out there. But I sleep well at night knowing that whatever progress we make, whatever battles we fight (even if we don’t win), we go at it each day for the safety of kids. And that’s important stuff.

    Outgoing NASDPTS President Derek Graham is section chief of transportation services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

     


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