Photo courtesy of J. J. Keller & Associates Inc.®
Keeping a pupil transportation operation running smoothly can be challenging in and of itself, and harsh environmental conditions such as heavy snow or rain, fog and other types of inclement weather can throw a wrench in the gears if everyone isn’t prepared for it.
What’s necessary to prepare and to keep bus drivers and students safe when they’re on a route? Officials say that among other factors, operations should have a clear policy in place that outlines what drivers can do if they encounter severe weather on the road that presents a potential safety hazard for them and their students.
And, although it may seem to be common sense, they say that school bus drivers must use extra caution when traversing the roads.
“Your defensive driving skills must be at their highest, and you have to be aware of your surroundings,” says Marcia Hahn, transportation director at Wenatchee (Wash.) School District #246. She is also a school bus driver trainer instructor for the state of Washington.
Hahn adds that pre-planning vehicle stops, utilizing the bus’ mirrors and driving more slowly than normal are extremely important when driving in inclement weather.
Maneuvering and inspecting the bus
Thomas Bray, senior editor, transportation management, for J.J. Keller & Associates, agrees with Hahn.
“In terms of traction, that’s a matter of being careful with the amount of braking and power used and being more selective about where you bring a vehicle to a stop so that you don’t end up stuck,” he says. “The other thing about driving slower in inclement weather is that it helps other motorists get acclimated to the bus on the road. Sudden stops or turns in adverse weather put other drivers in situations where they have to react to you, which is not a good situation to be in.”
As a school bus driver trainer instructor for the state of Washington, and at her own operation, Hahn teaches drivers about vehicle dynamics and how to maintain optimum control of a school bus under varying driving conditions.
For example, she says she teaches an “on-off-on” method with the throttle if the bus is in a skid. “If you put your foot on the brake, you’re going to lose traction, but if you throttle, then go off the throttle to make an evasive turn or move and then get back on the throttle, you can actually regain better control of your vehicle than by applying the brake,” Hahn explains.
“You have to be cognizant of what the weight transfer is going to do to the footprint of the bus on that surface.”
In terms of pre-planning stops, Hahn recommends stopping 10 to 12 feet back from the bus stop, particularly if a driver is operating a rear-engine bus, because on compact snow and ice, the front end of the bus has a tendency to slide.
Students should receive training to stand back from the sidewalk as the bus is approaching and should look for the driver’s signal to prepare to board the bus only after the front end has stopped moving, Hahn adds.
Bray also says bus drivers should make sure that all of the windows, lights and mirrors on the bus remain as clean as possible, and vehicle inspections are critical.
“That’s everything from making sure that the heat is working to making sure that the tires are good,” Bray says. “Windshield wipers not working, the defroster not working, the heater not working, tires without enough tread — these are all problems that can lead to serious issues, and they should be corrected before they become a problem.”