Reinforcing the skills our school bus drivers need to have a safe and accident-free school year is the purpose of Harford County (Md.) Public Schools transportation department’s summer training course. The course is set up on the parking lot of Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md.
This is the fourth year that all school bus drivers from throughout the county have participated in this event. In order to accommodate over 600 drivers in two days, we start at dawn and keep nine school buses busy throughout the tightly scheduled day.
Many volunteers are needed to set this course up and break it down. Our local Maryland State Highway Administration division provides road work barrels, cones, signs and barricades. Our garage mechanics build whatever we request. Cardboard boxes become cars and PVC pipes become trees. We have Harford County merchants who donate bottled water to keep us hydrated in the late August heat.
Learning from accidents
To guide us in implementing the skills we need to review, we scrutinize school bus accidents from the previous school year. This year, one comment caught our attention. The drivers repeatedly said that something on their route, in the parking lot or wherever the accident occurred was different. Example: A car was parked on the route where a car had never been, and the bus driver tried to negotiate a turn and struck the vehicle.
Consequently, to add a significant change in the course, we started from the opposite end of the parking lot. Drivers had to rethink the dynamics of the course, and it worked. It made the drivers sit up and take notice.
Each driver is given a form with specific instructions. This form documents all duties the driver needs to complete to stay certified, and they are as follows:
• Read the Harford County Public Schools training manual in order to complete an annual review of all policies and procedures.
• Pre-trip your school bus to ensure your knowledge of the vehicle and any defects before the first day of school.
• Drive all your school bus routes for the new school year to ensure knowledge of those routes (date, time and mileage).
On the back of the form is a check-off sheet with details of the required skills. A trainer must ride along on the course with the driver, and the trainer initials the form when the skills are executed correctly. There is also a comment area on the form, where trainers are encouraged to note any significant corrections that were given to the driver throughout the course or any actions by the driver that the trainer may deem unsafe. This documentation helps transportation evaluate the situation and decide if the driver needs more specific safety training.
An array of skills
The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) requires all counties to include certain annual safety training. The skills that are included on the course are as follows:
• Pre-trip is required before moving the bus (policy).
• Roundabout: The driver must execute one complete circle within the roundabout and then exit to a stop sign. Several maneuvers later, the roundabout is entered again and exited on the opposite side.
• Road work: A construction zone is designated with barrels and barricades and a caution sign (distance judgment/diminishing alley).
• Right and left turns at stop signs: There are white stop lines and boxes or plastic trash cans placed close to the turns to establish mirror use and to ensure the driver is aware of the tail swing at the rear overhang.
• School bus stop: proper procedure with lights activated.
• Distance judgment: Two trees were constructed with PVC pipe and evergreen branches to demonstrate the need to negotiate safely through tight spaces. (Last year, we made tollbooths from cardboard boxes in response to several mirror accidents at tollbooths.)
• Emergency stop: The driver had to negotiate safely around a mock car accident set up on the course. Drivers execute a stop, tell where they would set up the triangular reflectors on a roadway and identify where their emergency information kit is located.
• Railroad grade crossing: proper procedure (MSDE annual review).
• Bridge crossing: proper procedure (MSDE annual review).
• Distance judgment: placement of rear wheels. The driver must make a right turn and place the rear tires at large white Xs on the pavement. Now the school bus is in place for backing maneuvers.
• Backing/docking: The driver must safely serpentine around two barrels and then back into a 14-foot-wide dock. A forward serpentine is performed to exit the area.
• Pedestrian crosswalk: The driver must stop at the proper place.
• Post-trip: must be done before exiting the bus to ensure no child is left behind (policy).
Hard work pays off
All drivers understand the importance of safely transporting their precious cargo. This skills review is designed to help the drivers prepare for the new school year, and, in doing so, attain their goal of being accident-free.
The drivers and attendants give great feedback on this project, and I believe they have come to understand all the work involved in organizing and coordinating such a grand undertaking.
Our four driver instructors organize all the skills tests, from the conception drawn on paper to the last-minute details.
Diane Ormrod does our painting and project designs (she designed the trees). Joy Mattheu is our food guru and keeps us fed, and this year she chaired the attendant meeting onsite that demonstrated our latest wheelchair restraint system for both drivers and attendants. Denise Winesett was in charge of organizing all the buses, since we need to transport all the equipment and have enough trainers to drive all nine buses the nine miles to the stadium by 5 a.m.
I organize the layout of the skills on the parking lot and was able to get a schematic of the county roads with specific dimensions pertaining to a roundabout. The parking lot was marked with chalk and duct tape (100 feet in diameter) in order to place the cones in the proper locations and simulate an actual roundabout with exits and entrances. Our county is installing more and more roundabouts to ease traffic congestion and reduce fuel costs.
We mark the course the day before so we can arrive and drop off the bridge railings and directional signs. We could not do this without the dedicated volunteers who help with their muscles and make suggestions while we set up as to how we could improve the skill and make it more of a challenge.
We are known throughout Maryland as innovators, and consequently many counties send representatives to observe our courses and observe our classroom training.
We also help the MSDE chief of transportation, Leon Langley, in training new driver instructors for Maryland and have helped with training under three previous administrations.
On a daily basis, we transport 34,000 students in 486 buses, and our goal is to do it safely. The obvious effort put forth from everyone is a testament to the value of this project and the pride they take in their jobs. This project is only one of the many activities we conduct during the school year to ensure that safety is what we stand for every day. It is our core value, and it is embraced by 41 contractors and their 365 drivers, 212 special-needs county drivers and attendants, two dispatchers, four supervisors, four secretaries and our director, Charles Taibi.
We acknowledge our drivers for their dedication and participation in this project. We have witnessed their achievements on this challenging course.
“These drivers are the finest in the state,” Mr. Taibi says. “We take pride in our high standards, and our drivers always meet the challenge with great success.”
Katherine Mayor is a driving instructor at Harford County (Md.) Public Schools.