"Loser cruiser." This is the term a junior high school student used to describe the school bus she rode every day. I was on a flight recently and the gentleman next to me was relating the conversation he'd had with his daughter. She had sworn to him that, once she got to high school, she wasn't going to be caught riding the "loser cruiser" anymore. As someone who's given more than 25 years of his life to the student transportation industry, I was obviously bothered by this comment. But not just for the traditional reasons. It got me thinking about our industry's lack of commitment to improving the image of the yellow school bus to the people who really matter — students.
Industry image needs polishing
Today's children are growing up in a world of sensory overload — they are bombarded by visual stimulation at every turn. As products of the video and computer ages, they are simply not impressed with safety statistics — we offer them no real "selling" points that they care about. What are we doing to enhance our image among these children? Why should they think that the school bus is a necessity when school districts around the country are choosing other seemingly less important projects over their student transportation program? Consider this: a school in Texas made a choice to spend more money building a parking lot for its students while cutting counselor and teaching positions. What message does this send? It's clear — the education of our students is not as important as making sure they've got a place to park. Now consider what would happen if even half of those students were riding the bus instead. Less money would be spent on pavement and those counselors and teachers could keep their jobs. Why are we allowing ourselves to get pushed to the bottom of the priority list? How can we expect students to think the school bus is important when it is obvious that others don't? And then there is the image of the school bus driver. We all know that stereotypes abound. But for those of us in the industry, we have first-hand knowledge of just how caring and compassionate these individuals are, not to mention the extensive training they must undergo to get a CDL. But even one of our own industry publications makes a point of consistently publishing the comic strip Crankshaft, a disparaging depiction of what the public at large considers to be the "typical" school bus driver. What are we doing as an industry to counteract this image? How are we supporting our drivers, those people who do an extremely difficult job day in and day out? Are we helping to make their job easier? Or are we standing by, doing nothing, and chalking it up to, "Well, that's just the way it is."
Can-do attitude required
I think about that father and his daughter on a regular basis. I wonder how many other children are out there with the same mentality. I ask myself, "Are we doing enough to change their minds?" I don't think so. We all know the school bus is the safest form of transportation on the road today. But how do we get those children who don't perceive riding the school bus as "cool" to come on board? Our challenge is to put our heads together and try to figure out the answers to these questions. How much more time can we afford for the school bus to be known as "the loser cruiser"?
Author John Edney is president of the National School Transportation Association and chief development officer at Durham Transportation in Austin, Texas.