“Never stop learning and never stop asking questions, even when you think you know the answer,” advised Charles Vits, the recently retired market development manager for IMMI seat and seatbelt brand SafeGuard, relaying lessons he has learned throughout his 22-year career in pupil transportation.
Vits, who is also a former member of the National Child Passenger Safety Board, said if one never stops asking questions, they will not only continue to grow as a person but likely discover something about themselves that didn’t know before. That detail, he added, could provide a solution to a need they also never knew existed.
“Most importantly, you will find that our life is a series of building blocks of knowledge and experiences that we accumulate over the years,” explained Vits, who retired at the end of December. “We have no idea when and where each block will be used, but over your life, they will be used in ways you never plan on.”
To those currently entering the school transportation industry, he first suggested understanding the privilege and great responsibility one has in providing safe transportation for the next generation. “These students are looking to you not only to bring them safely to their destination but to be an adult role model who takes a genuine interest in them. They are watching you and learning from you,” he said.
Secondly, he advised to always conduct oneself with integrity and honesty, even in the most difficult situations, as one’s reputation is dependent on it.
“And finally, I would suggest that you never be satisfied with the job that you are asked to do but persevere in seeking ways to do more and to do better,” he said. “Observe and learn from others what the real needs of the job are. You want to be able to say to yourself at the end of the day, ‘I made a difference.’”
Vits Throughout His Career
As a boy growing up in Detroit, Vits said he always wanted to work as an engineer for one of the car manufacturers. His dream came true while attending the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1973. He interned for Ford Motor Company and was responsible for finding ways to meet future federal motor vehicle safety standards. He said he was given three Ford Pintos to crash-test, so he could researcg federal standards relating to occupant protection in a passenger vehicle.
After graduating, he went to work for Chrysler and then for various automotive suppliers. In 1998, he joined IMMI to manage the development of a school bus seat with lap/shoulder belts. Thus, he began his involvement in the “wonderful school bus world,” he said.
“I never would have believed that for my life career I would end up working with school transportation and enjoying it so much,” Vits added.
One of his greatest accomplishments, he shared, is his developing and bringing lap/shoulder belt technology to school bus transportation, while also gaining the acceptance of those opposed to using any kind of passenger restraints. Even greater, he said, was his work to improve the protection of prekindergarten through kindergarten students.
“When Head Start regulated new requirements for securing young children, there were few good options existing for school buses,” Vits explained. “God’s grace had led me to be in the right place and time to introduce the STAR [five-point restraint system]. Just as important as the STAR was the training to properly secure these children no matter what type of securement is used. This began a journey for me that continues to drive me today.”
He noted that overall, generations of industry leaders have started to look at safety features with a fresh perspective and not be limited by old assumptions. Vits said his goal continues to be preventing avoidable injuries and fatalities from occurring inside the school bus, while also expanding his goal to protect pre-kindergarten students. He added that he will continue to be available in retirement as an industry resource.
That’s not to say Vits hasn’t experienced any challenges. He said each day brings new challenges and more new information to be learned. Once information is presented, he said individuals must decide if the information is beneficial, because if so, discussions should center around how to apply the information.
“My challenge has been to obtain an understanding of the school transportation culture, thinking and priorities, and from that understanding present messages that help transportation to consider and then act on regarding school bus occupant protection,” Vits explained.
He added that school transportation’s proven safety record challenges the industry with continually striving to further improve it.
“The first time [IMMI] exhibited was in 1998 at the National Association for Pupil Transportation conference in Austin [Texas],” Vits recalled. “A concept seat with lap/shoulder belts was displayed just to gauge attitudes and obtain feedback. It was disappointingly negative and even hostile. Since then, we have grown together, so today’s conference shows become an exchange of how we can help each other out. Programs such as Toward Zero Deaths force us to make a commitment to not be satisfied with the status quo.”
As Charlie Vits enjoys retirement, he has a lot to keep him busy. He said he is not sailing into the proverbial sunset, instead he’s entering a new phase of life with different priorities. SafeGuard/IMMI will be consulting with Vits in some new areas that include pre-kindergarten child transportation, regularly areas involving products, and support for school bus shows. Vits said he has no intentions of making this full-time work.
Wife Cynde, who has attended trade shows with Vits, continues as a substitute teacher, which gives her the flexibility to travel. Son Caleb also traveled to transportation conferences with his parents and helped set up the company booths. On March 6, 2020, a week before COVID-19 broke out nationally, Caleb married Michelle, and the couple welcomed daughter Emmie Grace Vits into the world on Dec. 14.
After 22 years in the pupil transportation industry, Vits said it’s been the school transportation people who have kept him involved for so long, as everyone shares a common bond of loving children and finding ways to continue to make their ride to school and home safer.
“This love influences how they relate to all in the school transportation family,” Vits said. “It is so different from any other industry I have worked [in]. I have friends from all over this country that I will miss.”
Vits shared his biggest lesson learned throughout his career was the value of others, and how that has made a difference in such a relational industry. He said the industry itself, is dependent on each other to achieve the goal of transporting all students safely.
“We need to be open in our communication, share our knowledge, and be willing to serve each other,” Vits said. “The relational experience enables us to grow as we help others grow. Take advantage of opportunities that will grow relationships. You will be better for them. They may never come again.”
Related: IMMI’s Charlie Vits Named to National Child Passenger Safety Board
Related: Child Passenger Safety Hall of Fame Inductees Include Familiar Industry Names
Related: NHTSA Denial of Built-in School Bus Booster Seats won’t Impact Industry
Related: Video Spotlight: IMMI/SafeGuard School Bus Crash Test Demonstration
Related: SafeGuard School Bus Crash Demo Kicks Off STN EXPO Indy
While Vits said COVID-19 has prevented him from seeing industry friends, peers and co-workers before retirement, he will continue to attend in-person shows when they resume.
“2020 has been a year like no other. I was disappointed that I was unable to say goodbye in person to so many of my friends. My school transportation career has blessed me with the special privilege to on occasion minister to individuals in our school bus family,” Vits said. “It has been a joy for me to meet so many in school transportation that also share the common bond of accepting by faith Jesus Christ as their personal savior and to share how lives have been changed by this acceptance. I step back from my role in transportation with the prayer that those that have not come to this decision are led to also do so.”
Vits can be contacted for industry advice at firstname.lastname@example.org.