Don't drop your guard

Posted on November 1, 2004

A recent article published in a Pittsburgh newspaper quoted me as the source for some questionable viewpoints and is the spark for this article.

I spoke with the reporter on two occasions for a total of about an hour. He and I had a cordial discussion about a variety of school transportation issues, including school bus routing and scheduling in particular. I was therefore very surprised to see the following in print:

Each school day in the United States, 29 million students are taken to school on 490,000 school buses. That makes school buses the nation’s largest form of public transportation, Martin said. For such a large business, school bus transportation is only loosely regulated. There is, for instance, almost no federal oversight and little state regulation, Martin said. Routing decisions are almost always left to local authorities, Martin said, and from rural Wyoming to urban New Jersey, districts generally follow a self-imposed limit of about one hour for any bus ride, Martin said. “Anything more than that is bad for kids. It also means the district is not using its buses efficiently,” Martin said.

That’s not what I said!

First and foremost, I did not say that there are 29 million students who take the bus. Rather, I explained to this reporter that there are 24 million to 25 million students who take the bus to and from school each day and about 4 million to 5 million students who ride the bus on activity trips each day. The difference between what I said and what he wrote is subtle, but distinct.

The third sentence in his paragraph makes it appear as if I said that our industry was “loosely regulated.” I did not and would never say that. Quite to the contrary, I always say that school bus transportation is among the most heavily regulated forms of transportation in America. I note with fascination that this is the only information in that entire paragraph that he does not attribute to me, and note with dismay that it is written in such a fashion that it could easily be interpreted that way.

The next several sentences are also troubling. I did not say what he reported. What I did say was that, with the exception of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration hours-of-service regulations, the federal government does not generally get involved in school bus routing and scheduling. I also said that with a few notable exceptions, routing and scheduling decisions are generally left to local discretion. I explained that school transportation service providers often use a three-tiered routing structure so it is especially important to be efficient when you have just 40 to 50 minutes between each tier and that a 60-minute route might therefore be a benchmark for someone looking to evaluate routing efficiency.

The blame starts here

I am very frustrated by this experience, but more with myself than with the reporter. I know better than to trust a reporter I don’t know. In fact, 15 years ago I offered the following advice to one of my clients: “You must establish ground rules for interviews.” The key to every interview is staying in control. You can establish control if you remember four simple rules:

1. Know the reporter.

2. Know the situation.

3. Ask about the story before you become part of it.

4. Only answer the questions you have been asked and never assume facts.

Those words are ringing in my ears. Here’s the point: If you are not constantly using the fundamentals that you learn when you begin your job, there is a very real chance that something bad will happen. This advice is especially important for everyone in pupil transportation. Our industry has worked so tremendously hard to consistently improve our safety record that the general public has developed almost unreasonably high performance expectations. Mistakes, even minor ones, can easily become headlines.

In closing, I want everyone who reads this to know that I am, have always been and will always be totally supportive of your efforts in the field. I apologize if anyone saw or heard about my comments and got a different impression. Finally, I encourage you to be wary of dropping your guard.

Mike Martin is the executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

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