We have some good news to report this month. But first, some background:
Since January of 2007, NAPT has urged the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and specifically the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to include pupil transportation among the agency's many annual public information efforts.
We've put it in writing and also worked behind the scenes with our contacts at the agency. NHTSA is the federal agency charged with both regulating school buses and, more broadly, promoting that which improves highway safety, including pupil transportation safety.
Our two-fold request has been thus:
1. Engage publicly when there is a national news story about school buses to provide perspective and balance. In recent years, NHTSA remained on the sidelines after school bus crashes and other events, leaving it solely to the school bus industry to answer all questions.
2. Conduct public information campaigns routinely about the performance of school buses to educate the media, parents and local opinion-leaders. While yellow buses are an American icon that everyone knows at least visually from seeing them on the road, many don't know all the facts. There is an excellent story to be told, and it will get more attention when presented by the federal agency responsible for promoting highway safety.
In recent months, the industry kicked the request up a few notches after discovering that both DOT's and NHTSA's strategic planning documents did not even mention school buses.
The American School Bus Council contacted members of Congress who, in turn, wrote letters to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood formally requesting an information campaign. Letters from members of Congress always get attention at federal agencies, and especially when the request is a reasonable one — as this was.
NAPT also wrote its own letter to the secretary and reached out personally to its NHTSA staff contacts.
In our letter, we pointed out that "the DOT Strategic Plan currently out for public comment seeks to raise awareness about safety, infrastructure, transportation investments that bring lasting results to the nation, livable communities, and advancing environmentally sustainable policies.
"Pupil transportation already is meeting or exceeding these goals. It is your department's best success story, day in and day out making an exemplary transportation contribution."
Together, the full-court press on DOT bore fruit, and pupil transportation is now going to get some overdue attention.
On June 2, Secretary LaHood wrote, "I am pleased to inform you that, beginning in Fiscal Year 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will create educational materials — including information brochures, flyers and press releases — highlighting the benefits of school buses and promoting their use. The NHTSA will work with highway safety partners to distribute the materials and spread the message of the benefits of school bus ridership across the nation."
Kudos to Secretary LaHood for his prompt reply and commitment to action.
We have subsequently learned that the NHTSA staff will meet with the school bus industry to decide how best to communicate our messages. We look forward to participating.
Further, we hope that the ensuing information campaign will include personal efforts by Secretary LaHood. Why? Because he's such a powerful communicator.
Witness what in just a few months he did to elevate the discussion nationally about distracted driving. Everyone knew distracted driving is an increasing problem, especially text messaging. But he put the issue on the map. His passion on the issue translates into extensive media attention and action by states and others to make the public more aware of the dangers of distraction, and affirmative steps to minimize it.
The school bus story is a different one to tell from a communications standpoint. Whereas distracted driving is a tough problem requiring laws and other actions (not the least of which will be public attitude change), the school bus story is one of accomplishments that need to be told.
We fully understand that one topic is an urgent safety priority while the other is more routine. But the public is well served by communications that include both the newer safety challenges and the success stories! Clearly, Secretary LaHood understands that both need attention.
Last month in this space, we urged DOT to "Go tell it on the mountain" (about the success of pupil transportation in the U.S.). Now it's going to be told. What a difference a month can make!