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Unhealthy Distractions

The saying goes that life on the road can be a solitary one. Well, not exactly. As with everything, the reality is hazier than a simple black and white assumption of the driving profession. 

The perception of long-haul isolation might hold true for some who derive a living behind the wheel, but for the approximately half-million school bus drivers nationwide, this motif is quite the opposite. Their whole career is spent in the company of others, surrounded oftentimes by loud and rambunctious children, hauling them to and from school, on field trips and to athletic events. 

School bus drivers aren’t afforded an isolated existence because their role is that of protective guardian to a precious resource. Yet, there is a growing crisis that is affecting drivers across the board, from the impact the sedentary lifestyle has on health to the number of distractions that can snatch away the vital attention needed for driving safely. 

A sedentary lifestyle is defined as a routine of little to no irregular physical activity, and it is commonly found throughout the developed world. It has been directly linked to several preventable health issues, like obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In other words, the longer a human being remains in the sitting position, the higher the risk of premature death, especially if you remain still for more than five hours a day.   

“People are becoming more aware of the dangers of sitting thanks to recent studies implicating that extended periods of sitting are as dangerous to one’s health as smoking,” said Allison Veeder, an advanced practice registered nurse who examines school bus drivers.

Veeder works at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Lawrence, Kansas, and has been examining drivers for a variety of potential ailments that could hinder their abilities to manage a school bus. She works with the guidelines presented by state and federal agencies, like the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

During physical examinations, “We do attempt to educate drivers on the new guidelines and stress the importance of keeping themselves as healthy as possible or it may put future certifications in jeopardy,” said Veeder,

She mentioned that this sedentary lifestyle is also a contributing factor to the growth of obesity among Americans. A recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control found that 35 percent of adults are considered obese, and researchers discovered that due to the expanding waistlines in this country, lifespans are declining. 

“The negative effects of sitting are numerous: Decreased metabolic rate leading to weight gain and muscle wasting; poor posture leading to chronic neck/back/shoulder pain; decreased circulation, especially to the legs; insulin resistance leading to diabetes, heart disease,” said Veeder. 

The UK medical journal Lancet released a new study last month that examined the surge of diabetic adults across the globe. By 2025, the research estimates the number of people diagnosed with diabetes to be 700 million, a staggering increase of 548 percent from the 108 million people with diabetes in 1980. The study places the blame on the rise of the sedentary lifestyle. 

Health problems can lead to a number of personal issues; however, these concerns can also be dangerous, as they can potentially distract the driver from his or her duties. “Distracted driving is one of the most frightening issues we face,” said Max Christensen, the Iowa state director of transportation and a former president of NASDPTS. 

“In regards to health and fitness affecting a driver’s ability to perform their duties, good health and being fit is essential to their duties,” said Christensen. “A driver needs to be fit in the event there’s an emergency and they have to get the kids off the bus as there usually is not a great deal of time to work with, and the more fit and capable a school bus driver is, the better the chance of a successful evacuation.” 

Distracted driving is not just a result of health problems. Outside troubles can impair the ability to transport kids safely. Christensen listed a litany of factors that could hinder driving for both bus drivers and other motorists on the road, most of them centered on cell phone use, such as texting and talking. But there are plenty of other distractions inside vehicles.  

Bus drivers, specifically, encounter countless distractions that range from the kids on the bus to two-way radios, on top of the issues posed by cell phone use. Christensen mentioned that it is illegal to text while operation a motor vehicle in Iowa, especially for those holding a CDL. The same holds true for many other states or at least local municipalities.

“There are very strict rules in regards to school bus drivers and use of cell phones, to which most school bus drivers obey,” said Christensen. “If a school bus driver can’t stay off their phone during the short time needed for running a bus route, they really shouldn’t be entrusted with the lives of the kids on that bus.”  

These are issues that require disciplinary actions. For drivers who are caught texting, Christensen said, “It’s typically a ‘one and done’ situation.”   

Overall, though, Christensen said he believed that one of the easiest things a school bus driver can do to maintain their safety record, beyond avoiding those pesky outside distractions, is to get a good night’s sleep. “A well-rested body makes all the difference in the world in regards to being alert, being fit, having a good attitude, and being a good employee,” he said.  

One of the obstructions to a full-night’s rest is sleep apnea, for which the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has released a new set of guidelines to help detect and prevent. The FMCSA created these new rules due to the fact, as Veeder stressed, that “sleep apnea has many negative effects on the body.” 

“The most relevant to drivers is excessive daytime sleepiness,” said Veeder. “Some studies find it is comparable to being under the influence of alcohol when looking at delayed reaction times and motor vehicle accidents. The extended periods of decreased blood oxygen that result from sleep apnea have also been found to cause significant organ disease.” 

Veeder pointed to the rising obesity rates as obesity is a primary cause of sleep apnea. Due to these new federal regulations, certified medical examiners “now have an obligation to screen for sleep apnea during the certification process. A positive screening tool may result in the driver needing to get further medical testing.”  

Yet, the tests are an arduous process that come with a hefty price tag, especially for those without health insurance, which can come with out-of-pocket costs of $5,000. However, at least in Lawrence, drivers in this position have resources, Veeder stating that the city has two clinics for the uninsured that will provide the necessary care.  

Ultimately, though, Veeder and other health officials are pretty much unanimous in promoting basic nutrition and suitable exercise can reverse this spiraling trend. Veeder underlined the effectiveness of starting workplace wellness programs. 

“A yearly visit with a health coach and some basic lab work is often enough to identify an undiagnosed or uncontrolled chronic disease such as diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure,” said Veeder. “Many of these conditions do not have symptoms until they are advanced, thus someone may not see the need to seek health care for years.” 

Christensen reported that almost every every school district in Iowa has a wellness program that is available to all employees. 

“These programs cover aspects of personal decisions that lead to poor health or good health, such as healthy diet, exercise and eating,” said Christensen. “Most of these programs also include an exercise regimen that can help to contribute to a healthy lifestyle as well.”

John Benish, president and chief operating officer for school bus contractor Cook-Illinois Corporation, has worked wellness into current operational procedures. His employees are taught to eat better to lose weight, with one driver losing as much 80 pounds from the program. Some of the drivers has taken upon themselves to set up their own exercise program with a walking club that uses the lunch period to trek around an area nature preserve.  

Benish said he is also attempting to hire a full-time wellness practitioner to help promote health eating and create fitness plans in order to work on both physical and mental wellbeing since it’s about “feeling better about oneself.” 

He added that establishing the foundations to in a healthy lifestyle may take money to build initially, but it’s an investment in the long term.   

Veeder agreed with this outlook. “Sometimes just helping patients become aware of problems is enough to spur change,” she said. 

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