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Seeing Clearly During a Driver Shortage

Safety is a word this industry takes dead seriously. According to the American School Bus Council and recently I’ve written about the importance of ensuring accuracy of data, especially when used to describe student safety—school buses are 70 times safer than cars or trucks when taking children to school. Repeatedly, we read headlines from local news reports detailing school bus crashes, only to learn that the school bus and all its occupants fared very well. It’s the driver (and passengers) of the other vehicle or vehicles, sadly, that didn’t.

But school buses and school busing can always be safer. Jeff Cassell, founder and owner of driver training provider School Bus Safety Company, says safety is the elimination of risk. While designed to a different end, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health lists elimination as its first hierarchy of controls when reducing hazards from the workplace. Ask yourself, what is my operation’s hazard elimination process for keeping students safe at their school bus stops?

This month, we take a closer look at the visibility of school buses as they maneuver around cities, towns and rural areas across North America. When tragedy does strike students, it’s often immediately before they board the school bus or immediately after they exit. As the same federal stats show, the safest place for students is when they are seated on the school bus. (Another day, we’ll continue the debate on whether they should also be belted or not.) Violence can and does happen on school buses, and there are some collisions that are not survivable though perhaps preventable. But once students leave the protection of the steel cage and high, padded seatbacks that school buses provide, their safety becomes imperiled.

Do other motorists know the law about stopping for school buses? Do they care? Are they even able to decipher that the school bus is a school bus? There are many more factors at play that can suddenly and irreversibly spell disaster.

The crux of this issue is driver training, for every motorist on the road. This is also yet another main facet of school bus safety. In fact, many industry professionals over the years have told me that the school bus driver is far more important to student safety than any equipment or technology that can be added. For this reason, and during the worst driver shortage that has plagued the industry, it remains paramount that training doesn’t take a back seat to other pressures. All of today’s technology is truly remarkable, but it can’t replace or overcompensate for a driver who doesn’t do their job correctly, or who may have the best intentions yet operates unsafely by speeding to or from a bus stop because they are running late. Several transportation directors have told me recently that their new normal is buses arriving at school 5 to 10 minutes tardy because of staff shortages.

While our friends at the routing companies may beg to differ with this assertion, what has become crystal clear alongside better illuminated school buses on the road is the need for enhanced communication with managers and concise training on what to do—and not to do—when driving or preparing to drive the students.

This includes uniform hand signals to students when it’s safe to cross the street. The students also need to know what the hand signals mean. This is every bit as important as teaching them not to run after the school bus Several fatalities have occurred in the last year alone from students trying to catch their school bus, which might have arrived late to the stop. If there is no parent-facing app being used, this could lead to students staying inside their homes longer, especially when outside temperatures drop, and then rushing to the stop once the bus finally arrives. Then there is the trend of eliminating student crossings to and from bus stops.

When talking about school bus safety, during the ride or picking up or dropping off students, the impact of school bus drivers cannot be stressed enough. Hundreds of thousands of school bus drivers perform admirably each day, but it only takes one distraction, one wrong maneuver to spoil that reality in the eyes of the media, the general public, and most importantly the parents. This is truer today than it has ever been, as student transporters work longer and harder than ever to try and overcome staffing shortages. But the industry can’t use that fact as an excuse when tragedy strikes

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the February 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: Watch: Arkansas Director Talks School Bus Safety
Related: School Bus Driver Shortage Results in Financial Penalties for Ohio Districts
Related: Ohio Superintendent Obtains CDL to Address School Bus Driver Shortage
Related: Have you had to get creative with your operation’s routing due to the school bus driver shortage?

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