When Mark Cegelski earned his license to drive a school bus at age 18, he didn’t expect it to lead to a long career in pupil transportation.
It was 1982, and Cegelski took a bus driving gig to help pay his way through college. He was studying accounting at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
“It was the perfect job for a college student, as you had time to attend classes between the morning and afternoon runs,” he says.
After he graduated, Cegelski remained in the pupil transportation field, and he worked his way up the ladder to become a director of transportation. He served in that position for Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Mayfield City Schools in Ohio before retiring in December 2015.
Even in retirement, Cegelski has returned to the role that kicked off his career.
“I am happily retired and enjoying driving a bus again,” he says.
If he hadn’t been allowed to drive a school bus in college, Cegelski notes, he most likely would have gone on to work in an industry other than pupil transportation.
That point doesn’t mesh well with a recent development in Tennessee: Lawmakers raised the minimum age for new school bus drivers in the state from 21 to 25. Current school bus drivers in that age range will be grandfathered in.
The bill that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law on May 4 was spurred by the Nov. 21 school bus crash in Chattanooga in which six students were killed. The legislation includes other measures that are intended to bolster school transportation oversight and training, but the minimum age change stands out as an overreaching reaction to the tragedy in Chattanooga.
In that crash, school bus driver Johnthony Walker was 24 years old. The incident occurred on a two-lane road with a 30 mph speed limit and an advisory speed of 25 mph for curves. Police estimated that Walker’s bus was traveling at about 50 mph.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) preliminary report, Walker lost control of the bus and departed the roadway to the left as he passed the second of two curves. The bus then hit a utility pole, overturned, and crashed into a tree, which caused the roof of the bus to collapse inward.
Was Walker’s relatively young age a significant factor in what happened with his bus, or would the same thing have occurred if he had been 25 or older? We can’t say.
I would argue that the more telling details were what had happened before Nov. 21. For example, NTSB said that since the beginning of the school year in August, Walker had had one reportable crash and one non-reportable crash. Also, multiple complaints had been lodged about Walker’s driving and his behavior toward students.
So should people younger than 25 with a clean background and driving history now be barred from taking a job as a school bus driver?
Coming back to Cegelski, the Ohio pupil transportation veteran, he acknowledges that his own start at 18 years old may have been a bit too young, but he maintains that in the Chattanooga crash, “the driver’s personal immaturity caused his actions, not his age.”
“I don’t believe the actions of one driver should deny everyone under 25 a chance to start a great career in the school bus industry,” Cegelski says.
Cegelski’s early entrée into pupil transportation is certainly not unique. Many leaders in the industry launched their careers by driving a school bus in or after college.
At a time when operations across the country are struggling with a shortage of drivers, and as many longtime transportation directors are retiring, ruling out new school bus drivers under age 25 is a shortsighted move. The industry needs more young people, not fewer, to carry on the work of safely transporting our nation’s future.
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