One of the most important — and challenging — tasks school transportation departments face is ensuring they have enough qualified school bus drivers to safely transport students to and from school. To do so, new drivers must be found, trained, and licensed.
This school year pupil transportation departments must also meet a new demand: ensuring their new drivers meet the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA's) Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) regulations. According to the regulations, new school bus drivers must complete a theory and behind-the-wheel training program, achieve at least 80% on an exam on the classroom content, and demonstrate proficiency on ELDT’s behind-the-wheel skills before they take the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) test. Also, the training must be provided by a registered training provider. The ELDT regulations take effect Feb. 7, 2022.
“These ELDT regulations set a single federal standard for commercial driver licensing,” says Jeff Cassell, president of School Bus Safety Co. “They are the biggest change in the industry in 40 years.”
School Bus Safety Co. and Student Transport are two companies that provide programs to help school systems prepare their drivers for CDL licensure, ensure their drivers meet ELDT regulations and, beyond that, have the specialized knowledge and skills to safely drive a school bus.
Two Programs for Entry-Level Driver Training
Both School Bus Safety Co. and Student Transport are making ELDT requirements a top priority.
Cassell's ELDT program, called Compliance MAP-21, covers the 26 regulations that are not taught in his driver training course and is sold as a supplement to that program. Drivers can complete Compliance MAP-21 in about an hour, and they can take it online, via portable USB drives, or on DVD sets, according to Cassell.
Cassell also developed a 40-question exam that can be used to show that drivers meet ELDT’s 80% competency requirement for the theory portion of the training.
A third part of Cassell’s ELDT program, though not required by the FMCSA, is his Safety Management System course. It identifies 22 driving hazards and provides strategies drivers should employ to mitigate them.
Nelson Smith, chief executive officer of Student Transport, has taken a different approach. His ELDT program covers all 303 ELDT regulations. Drivers can study the material in his cloud-based ELDT program on any device and progress at their own pace, Smith says. It should take a driver about five hours to complete the course, he estimates.
For the ELDT competency requirement, Smith provides tests on theory that trainers can give drivers as they advance through the course. He also includes a check sheet trainers can use to record when they cover ELDT’s behind-the-wheel skills and the length of time they spent on each one.
Smith’s ELDT program will be available in September.
ELDT’s Impact on the Industry
According to Cassell and Smith, the ELDT requirements will not reduce the school bus driver shortage. However, they do say the regulations will make school buses safer.
“ELDT will improve student safety,” Smith says. “Every driver will go through the same training, and nothing will get cut. Driver training will be more thorough.”
Cassell agrees, stating that the high level of standardization will increase the effectiveness of driver training.
More Programs for Bus Driver Safety
Cassell says school bus safety starts and ends with the drivers. He offers a number of courses to ensure drivers learn the skills necessary to prevent accidents.
“We teach drivers to take 100 percent responsibility for conscious and deliberate unsafe driving behaviors,” he says. “We try to create a culture of competency.”
School Bus Safety Co.’s courses that reinforce specific driver safety practices, include:
- New Driver Training Course, a defensive driving course that teaches new drivers how to handle unsafe situations involving a school bus. Videos depict realistic situations and model correct behavior. Discussion pages help drivers realize the reasons behind best practices and reinforce learning.
- Twelve to Zero, a comprehensive program that focuses on eliminating accidents in the danger zone (the 10 feet around a school bus). In addition to driver safety practices, it includes a school bus safety program for children and strategies to educate the public on safe driving around school buses.
- Safety Leadership Course, a course for managers that covers the basics of school bus safety as well as methods they can employ to ensure their drivers follow safe driving protocols.
Student Transport also offers training to improve driver safety. The company's Mini-Bus Driver Training course includes effective practices and knowledge sets for these vehicles that range from the pre-trip check to the differences between driving a mini-bus and a regular-sized passenger vehicle.
“We want to put drivers through the course for risk mitigation and safety,” Smith says.
Don’t Forget the Students
Teaching students school bus safety is both needed and something the industry can do better, according to Cassell. Therefore, School Bus Safety Co. offers its Student Safety Courses, a comprehensive program geared to children in pre-K through sixth grade and up. It teaches children school bus safety practices, ranging from how to cross the street to how to evacuate a school bus in an emergency.
Cassell recently upgraded the program for children in pre-K through second grade. It now focuses on what children should do, rather than what they shouldn’t, when around a school bus. To appeal to young children, the program uses animation as well as a real teacher and students; and their learning is reinforced by repetition.
“This is the most important of the children’s courses,” he says. “Young kids are carefree. We need to get them to respect the school bus.”
School systems that obtain this free program can load it on each student’s school portal and ask parents to take their children through it. Cassell hopes younger students go through the program before school starts.
Another area Cassell is tackling is transporting students with special needs. His upcoming revised program for school bus drivers and monitors will teach best practices for communicating with students with special needs as well as practical skills such as how to correctly buckle students into a seat and use the lift. It will be available at the end of August.
Through the programs School Bus Safety Co. and Student Transport offer, school transportation departments can get their bus drivers the training they need to meet regulations and licensure requirements, but, more importantly, to be the safest school bus drivers possible.