I’ll be honest with you: I love to boast about our industry safety record when speaking at conferences or in casual conversation with friends and neighbors.
As I explain that yellow buses are the safest way to get children to and from school, a kind of bravado punctuates my extreme pride for our business.
However, if you were following the school transportation headlines toward the end of 2016, the year came to a devastating finish with several fatal incidents in the space of a few weeks:
• On Nov. 1, a school bus in Baltimore, Maryland, drove into oncoming traffic and crashed into a transit bus. The drivers of both buses and four transit bus passengers were killed, and seven other transit bus passengers were seriously injured.
• On Nov. 4 at about 3:45 p.m., a 7-year-old girl attending a school in Springville, New York, lost her life as she exited her bus for home. The student was fatally struck by the front of her bus.
• On Nov. 21, six students were killed and 31 were injured in a school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The incident shined a spotlight on alleged reports of school bus driver behaviors that apparently went uncorrected.
Tragedies like these are followed by community shock and anguish, along with a cry for answers. Statements by school district superintendents or school bus contractor executives typically assert that they are working with authorities to identify the cause — and to determine what can be done to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
I am not an investigator in any of the aforementioned situations, but I have worked in school transportation and emergency services for more than 26 years. For any district and company leaders who want to prevent future tragedies, I’ll share some important points to help avoid an environment that is ripe for serious incidents.
I have personally been observing some troubling trends in school transportation in some communities. So while not “Monday morning quarterbacking” any specific incident or making any direct connection between the following points and the aforementioned crashes, allow me to point out some fundamental components of a safe school transportation operation. Addressing these key factors can ultimately help in reducing the risk of a serious crash or a by-own-bus fatality.
1. Experienced leadership needed
There is a specialized set of skills and knowledge that school transportation leaders need in issues like accident prevention, employee training, and risk management. Leaders of transportation departments must be strong, committed leaders with a vision of where the department is today and what are its weaknesses and exposures. And they must be able to use that information to map a clear path to improve the operation.
These transportation leaders must be supported by administration. When administration gets pushback from internal or external naysayers, or when administrators themselves do not fully understand key transportation operational aspects, they must default to backing the leader they have in place to manage the department.
Good leadership doesn’t come cheap, either. When hiring a transportation director or supervisor, school districts have to offer a compensation plan to attract and keep the best and brightest. The transportation department leader is responsible for a districtwide service, so he or she should be paid on par with other district office administrators or, at the very least, school principals.
Districts must also acknowledge that layers of supervision in a school transportation operation — director, router, trainer, safety coordinator, head mechanic, head bus driver — are all part of a system that ensures a safe operation. When positions are cut to save money and tasks get shifted to other people, increasing individual workloads, some tasks that are critical to safety ultimately suffer. Transportation management teams must be staffed properly. You cannot do school transportation on the cheap!
When positions are cut to save money and tasks get shifted to other people, increasing individual workloads, some tasks that are critical to safety ultimately suffer.
2. Train beyond state mandates
Training is one of the most important aspects of your school transportation operation. A high-quality training program that exceeds your state’s standards is the only way you can ensure that your employees understand your expectations for performance, that they are kept aware of changes in laws and regulations, and that they get a regular dose of “back-to-basics” lessons that are critical to safety and performance.
Every transportation operation should provide a minimum of 10 to 12 hours annually of classroom-based professional development on a wide variety of topics for all staff. This should include defensive driving, understanding equipment, emergency management, customer service, teamwork, communication, student management, and other related topics. Employees should be paid for their time, and the training should be mandatory.
Also, training programs should ensure that all employees, regardless of hire date, are on the same page. Employees hired as school bus drivers 20 years ago may have received far less training than a driver hired one year ago, so it is important that you bring every member of your team to the same competency level to ensure consistent and safe performance.
3. Use technology and be visible
Many school districts and some drivers celebrate transportation managers who are always at their desk. Some will often raise questions when a manager is not in his or her office. However, once daily managerial tasks are done, the most important place any transportation manager should be is out on the road watching the fleet in action.
The only way to get a true understanding of how your drivers actually perform is to watch them on the road interacting with traffic, at bus stops loading and unloading children, and on school grounds. One way to do this is to ride on buses, where you can watch drivers and attendants interact with students. It is also essential to observe from a separate vehicle to get a true picture of your buses and drivers in action.
It is also important to integrate technology such as GPS and onboard video systems as your budget permits. These tools help the whole organization protect students and team members through accountability and coaching to avoid errors or negligence that can lead to a serious accident or fatality.
4. Invest in employees
Having driven a school bus myself for almost 10 years prior to moving into management, I will say that the role of driver or attendant is probably the best job in the department. Even so, almost every transportation manager you speak to will confirm that there is a nationwide driver shortage.
I truly believe that the licensing, training, background checks, drug testing, demands of students and parents, weather, and challenges from the motoring public have pushed the role of school bus driver past the simple part-time job of yesteryear. If we get serious about how difficult and demanding the job is — and about the quality of employees we want driving our students — we will raise hourly rates and related benefits and develop a full-time schedule that will attract high-quality people to seek employment in our operations.
This will reduce the amount of time managers spend dealing with the constant revolving door of people who “love the job,” as they say, but need to go elsewhere to earn a living wage and the benefits they need for their families.
Once daily managerial tasks are done, the most important place any transportation manager should be is out on the road watching the fleet in action.
5. Weed out bad apples
Higher wages and guaranteed hours will ultimately improve the pool of applicants and could prevent some operations from having to “take a gamble” on borderline applicants who might not truly be cut out for driving a school bus.
Based on my experience, 99% of school transportation employees — from substitute drivers all the way up to directors — are some of the best people that any community has to offer. But there is the occasional employee who should never have been hired in the first place. In other cases, a once-dedicated employee has become disgruntled or has lost his or her patience with challenging students.
These individuals must be convinced that there are other ways to make a living, or they should be involuntarily purged from our operations through the disciplinary process if performance issues exist. School districts and contractors should not be battered around by labor groups that try to protect unprofessional or reckless transportation employees. It should be agreed upon that one derelict employee can make the entire group look bad and can damage not only the school transportation operation’s brand, but also the reputation of the labor union or association that represents transportation employees.
6. Purchase with purpose
The yellow school bus is the most important piece of equipment we have. Because of their color, they all seem to look the same, and it’s difficult to convince your company or district hierarchy that there are differences among buses.
It is important to identify why you are purchasing a vehicle and what you want it to do. A school transportation organization that simply wants to purchase the lowest-price vehicle may look like they are being cost effective on paper, but they may be shortchanging their community stakeholders in the long run.
Safety should come first in purchasing decisions. You should look at all aspects of safety, including how buses are built, crash test data, available fire suppression systems, exits, blind spots, and visibility of crossing students.
You should also evaluate capacities to make sure your vehicles are versatile. Special-needs vehicles should be able to handle multiple wheelchairs. For athletic trips, buses should be able to accommodate multiple sports teams, with their equipment stored safely underneath the bus.
It is important to also identify options that improve safety while enhancing the environment for the driver and attendant. I recently specified a heated driver seat on a school bus in a northern climate, and a school district administrator questioned me about the cost of that feature. I made the observation that the administrator is in a warm office eight or more hours a day, but the cold school bus is the driver’s office. The simple upgrade to a heated driver seat goes a long way in showing how the district values its employees.
Lastly, determine the life expectancy that you seek for your school transportation vehicles. Then set up a maintenance and fleet replacement program to ensure that you are annually purchasing enough new buses, replacing older models at the right time, and keeping the fleet in top shape.
7. Stay consistent with laws, policies
In many ways, books of laws are like memorial tributes. Speed limits, stop arms, crosswalks, and other measures exist because of fatalities that triggered the creation of a particular regulation.
Also in this category are the various school transportation policies that districts and contractors develop to structure their operations. These policies ensure that the transportation program is fair and equitable for all district stakeholders and that dangers due to factors like roadway configurations and traffic patterns are addressed.
For example, districts that set policies to limit the number of alternate drop-offs or day care stops are seeking to prevent students from being misplaced. When buses have to enter multiple day care locations, or when separate drop-offs are added for divorced parents on different days, the result is an increased risk of a child being dropped off at the wrong location — especially when a substitute driver is in place.
If the district has set a policy that a 6-year-old student does not cross in front of the bus on a busy street, don’t depart from that policy because a parent is angry about having to wait for the bus to turn around. Unnecessary student crossings on busy streets increase risk for the transportation operation and for the child.
Laws and policies are there for a reason. Stick with them and be fair. Once you make an exception for one parent, you will have no choice but to make exceptions for all. You may also open yourself up to a public relations debacle, legal issues, or an increased risk of student injury or fatality.
8. Put children first
I cannot tell you how many times in my career in public schools I have heard the expression “children first” but watched adults do the exact opposite when it comes to money, labor contracts, work hours, or going the extra mile. Schools and school transportation operations exist to serve children, but over and over again I see these organizations become adult-centered.
Transportation departments must realize that the students they transport come first, and they should work to provide high-quality customer service to students and parents at all times.
Many organizations have buses that sit during the middle of the day or all summer long; these vehicles should be in use serving the needs of children. If a child accidentally oversleeps and misses the bus, it should be no big deal to go back and pick up the child after the rest of the kids are dropped off at school.
Most of the time the driver is on the clock anyway, the bus has fuel, and chances are it’s not the child’s fault that he overslept anyway, so why should he suffer?
If a principal needs a student brought in midday to take an important test, there should be no reason that the transportation department can’t run out and get that student. We in transportation support the district’s educational goal of doing everything in our power to make sure every student graduates.
If we have to send a wheelchair bus with an attendant to a science museum for a field trip that other regular-education kids are going on in a non-wheelchair bus, we should do so to make sure the special-needs child in the wheelchair can enjoy the same field trip.
Leaders of school districts must also commit to putting children first in transportation and not be held over a barrel by driver labor groups that are more worried about their needs than what the children need.
When what is best for the students governs every decision we make, then and only then will our school bus operations be headed in the right direction.