“Technology Lessons Learned from Chowchilla,” (Ryan Gray, STN, September 2022), and various other School Transportation News articles describing the ever-increasing development, use of technology and improved equipment design and installation on school buses caused me to reflect on what improvements have been made to enhance the safety of passengers in my 47 years of experience in student transportation.
I recall when, circa 1976, eight lights (amber and red) were required to replace the four-light (red only) warning system on new school buses. Shortly thereafter, fiberglass seats—yes, fiberglass—and steel- or aluminum-backed seats were replaced by compartmentalized seats with fully padded and higher seatbacks. Then, in 2011, the backs were raised even higher, allowing for three-point seat belts to be installed for additional safety.
LED lighting, improved mirror systems, sloped hood to enhance driver view of passenger crossing, crossing control arms (aka crossing gates), backing alarms, occupant restraints, interior and exterior cameras, strobe lamps, GPS systems, Anti-Lock Brake Systems, improved communication systems, escape hatches, emergency exit windows, computer-assisted routing, fire suppression systems, fire-retardant seat covers—these are just a few of the design and equipment enhancements I have watched come into existence over my career.
But with all the safety features that have been developed and added as mandatory equipment or available options, we still have too many passenger fatalities, especially at bus stops. What saddens me most is that most of the fatalities are due to school bus driver error. If, for example, passengers are not required to remain seated or to sit properly when their buses are in motion, what good is compartmental seating? If passengers are not required to properly use seatbelts or other required occupant restraints, how safe are the passengers in reality? If bus drivers are inattentive at bus stops, how can flashing lights, stop signal arms and crossing control arms prevent children from being injured or killed? If drivers do not properly adjust and frequently check the bus mirrors, how can they be aware of potential dangers for “their most precious cargo?”
No doubt, schools, school districts and private transporters include in their training curricula emphasis on the various safe driving techniques that are designed to protect themselves and their precious cargo. In my daily travels, however, I have witnessed veteran school bus drivers disregarding all too many of the techniques they were taught. Yet bus drivers often are quick to blame other motorists or the passengers they transport when tragedies occur. I have often stated that, “We cannot run a safe transportation operation from behind a desk,” meaning that supervisory personnel must find time to be out and about to observe their drivers and must follow up with retraining as required to correct the unsafe practices they observe.
All of the advanced safety features on our nation’s school buses in and of themselves will not prevent passenger injuries and fatalities. Safety depends on the use of these features by the school bus drivers. This brings to mind what my coaches used to tell us when we performed poorly in a game: “Tomorrow, we go back to the basics!”
It comes to mind that for the protection of our most precious cargo, in many cases, we need to go back to the basics in driver training and then follow up with actual observations to correct incorrect driver performance. But in the process of observing drivers in the field, never fail to commend those who are “doing it right.”
George Horne’s experience in public education has spanned nearly six decades, nearly five of those spent in student transportation. He served in nearly all facets of public education – as a teacher, transportation supervisor, executive director, assistant superintendent, and superintendent – at Jefferson Parish Public Schools in New Orleans for 32 years before becoming a private consultant and later southeast regional manager for the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute. He has written Head Start transportation manuals and handbooks for numerous companies and school districts, and he has served as an expert consultant and an expert witness in student transportation-related accident cases. Horne continues to be a certified school bus driver instructor and a certified master instructor with the Louisiana Department of Education.