Take a walk on the safe side

Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher
Posted on March 1, 2004
There are so many things to worry about on a school bus that it’s difficult to catalog them all.

Behavior issues immediately come to mind. Video surveillance cameras recently taped a brawl on a middle-school bus in Florida. It was nasty stuff, with fists flying and multiple perpetrators. For the bus driver, I’m sure, it was a nightmare. For the many millions of Americans who saw the footage on the nightly news, it was a reason to question the safety of the yellow school bus.

Then there’s the constant concern about inattentive motorists. In North Carolina, a truck driver fumbling for a cell phone plowed his vehicle into a stopped school bus, killing a 5-year-old girl as she boarded the bus.

Of course, there’s always the weather. This year’s frigid temperatures have been blamed in crashes all over the eastern half of the United States. School buses certainly have not been immune to the hazards of snow, ice, sleet and below-zero temperatures.

No way to deflect blame
But there’s one thing that we can’t blame on violent passengers, distracted motorists or the weather. That’s the incidence of bus drivers leaving children stranded on their vehicles.

This is a topic that has been discussed in this magazine many times. Several years ago I wrote an editorial urging that transportation managers immediately terminate any drivers who commit this unpardonable sin.

This zero-tolerance stance drew protests from drivers and managers alike, although many people agreed with me. Some of the drivers complained that I had never driven a school bus and thus was not in a position to judge or condemn them. The objecting managers argued that the driver shortage $#151 a serious problem at the time $#151 made it difficult for them to terminate drivers. True, I have never driven a school bus, though I threatened several years ago to get my CDL. Some of my friends in the industry have not let me forget my empty promise, and I respect them for their perseverance.

But my lack of experience doesn’t change the simple truth: It’s absolutely irresponsible to leave your bus at the end of a run without first checking to see if everyone has gotten off. That’s not a judgment that needs to be based on driving experience.

In regard to the driver shortage, I understand the argument that firing a driver could create an even greater danger posed by hiring an even less qualified driver or having to rely more on sub drivers who are not familiar with the routes or the children. But holding on to a driver who has stranded a child can be dangerous too.

Where does that leave us?
Time has tempered the strength of my conviction. Although I think in some cases that the driver should be summarily terminated, in other cases there may be extenuating circumstances that merit a second chance. Managers need to use their best judgment and intuition in making these tough decisions if policy is not already in place that dictates their actions.

The most important thing, however, isn’t policy or firings, it’s the action taken to ensure these strandings don’t continue. Whether it’s installing an electronic child-check system, issuing daily reminders to drivers to check the bus or following them in observation cars to see if they’re doing their walk-backs, transportation managers need to take action.
We can’t pretend that this isn’t a problem. It seems that every day there’s another media report of a child left on a school bus. I no longer believe that immediate termination of drivers is the answer to this problem. It’s time to lay the burden on the managers. Find a way to stop this from occurring $#151 or keep reading these critical editorials from a guy who’s never driven a school bus.

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