The ripple effect

Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher
Posted on December 1, 2004

The 24 million children who ride the bus to and from school every day enjoy a degree of safety that’s unmatched in surface transportation. That’s something we can all be proud of.

But I think we also need to consider the millions of eligible children who don’t ride the bus. They’re not being afforded the same protection as their bus-riding peers, whether they’re walking, bicycling or riding in cars with parents or friends.

Yes, I know, many students, especially the older ones, won’t ride a school bus because it’s the “loser cruiser.” That’s an unfortunate circumstance that we can’t do much about. In addition, many eligible students don’t ride the bus because of schedule conflicts.

Misbehavior is top concern
A great many other students, however, don’t ride the bus for reasons that we can influence. According to a study of parents at a North Carolina school district, concerns about bus misbehavior are widespread. More than half (52.0 percent) of the responding parents cited this as a reason why their children don’t ride the bus.

The study was conducted by the Center for Urban Affairs and Community Services at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh. It focused on a single school district, Union County Public Schools, which has an enrollment of approximately 27,000. More than 1,300 surveys were filled out by parents.

As you might expect, parents of middle school students mentioned “bus behavior concerns” as a deterrent more frequently (65.9 percent) than parents of elementary school students (56.9 percent) or high school students (40.5 percent).

The second-most prevalent reason mentioned by parents was safety concerns. About one in three parents perceived safety as an issue. This, of course, flies in the face of what we know about the relative risks of the different school travel modes. Why do parents have this misconception? Could it be linked to concerns about misbehavior?

In any case, the results of the study indirectly suggest that more students would ride the bus if there were fewer discipline problems. We should be encouraged by this finding. It means that we can improve ridership — and safety. All we have to do is find a way to curtail misbehavior.

That’s not an easy task, of course. Students are increasingly less respectful of authority, whether it’s at home, on the bus or in the classroom. Keeping the peace on the bus has become a critical challenge — one that we can’t afford to lose.

You need to take control
The reason behavior is such a key battleground is that it not only influences ridership, it also affects staff morale and, consequently, driver retention rates. With the improvement in the U.S. economy and the reduction in unemployment, the fight for drivers is going to worsen over the next few years.

At many school districts and contractor operations, the driver shortage is already severe. Losing drivers because of uncontrollable students would add to the problem. From what I hear, driver absenteeism is also putting a strain on transportation programs. You have to wonder how many of these absent drivers would be more inclined to show up for work if their passengers were better behaved.

How do you improve the behavioral climate on your buses? You know better than I. I can suggest improved driver training and better relations with schools, teachers, administrators and parents, but every district has its own unique circumstances.

When it comes down to it, the real challenge is getting the driver to relate to each student individually. Knowing the student’s name is a good start. A cheerful “good morning” or “good afternoon” helps, too. These are basic customer service skills. We need to apply them. Our customers are our riders — good, bad and in-between.

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