Implementing agility fitness tests into school district operations requires a comprehensive analysis of all the factors, including the potential loss of drivers and the worker’s comp issues that could follow. However, some argue that regardless of all the factors, student safety should remain a top priority.
Following the fatal 2017 school bus fire in Oakland, Iowa, the National School Transportation Board asked each state to revise its driver standards. Amid the investigation, the NTSB concluded that had the Riverside Community School District installed a fire suppression system in the engine compartment, it could have provided additional time for 74-year-old driver Donnie Hendricks and 16-year-old student Megan Klindt to safely evacuate. Instead, the two died in the school bus.
The NTSB also noted that Hendricks should never have been behind the wheel, as he was physically unfit for duty, due to a chronic back condition. He was also taking the prescription Gabapentin for pain, had back surgery scheduled for the following week, and was unable to walk unassisted. The report said that Klindt likely attempted to help Hendricks out of his seat but was overcome by the heat and smoke.
As a result, the NTSB asked the 50 states and U.S. territories to require that new school bus driver applicants pass physical fitness tests upon hire and then again annually, as well as after any new medical condition is diagnosed.
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Since the incident, more states and school districts have adopted such physical fitness/agility tests to test their drivers and ensure they are fit for duty. At the National State Director of Pupil Transportation Services conference in Washington, D.C., last November, Larry Minor, the associate administrator at the Office of Policy at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, explained that a revision of the commercial driver safety fitness procedures of 2016 is coming.
Minor noted that FMCSA plans to start from scratch and seek information on how it might use resources more effectively to identify and remove unfit motor carriers from the nation’s roadways. He added that the agency is seeking public comment about the use of available safety data, including inspection data, in determining carrier fitness to operate commercial vehicles. Minor added that rulemaking would also include a review of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) that the agency uses to rate driver fitness.
Also, during the conference, a panel discussion on driver fitness was presented by Mike Bullman, the NASDPTS board secretary and South Carolina state director; Tyler Bryan, NASDPTS eastern region chair and Delaware state director; Mike Stier, NASDPTS central region chair and Illinois state director; and Susan Miller, Colorado state director.
The state directors discussed what is required in each state, above and beyond either the federal or their state Department of Transportation physical. While some states use the DOT physical as the only form of a fitness requirement, other states have added required agility tests or performance tests. For some states, this includes having to exit the rear of the bus, switch their foot between the brake and accelerator, go up and down the bus stairs, open and close the bus service door, and drag various weights a certain amount of feet to mimic evacuating an unresponsive student.
Despite other states not mandating such tests, some districts have taken it upon themselves to administer them anyway.
At a previous NASDPTS conference, Max Christensen, the executive officer of school transportation for the Iowa Department of Transportation, led a presentation on physical performance tests. He said that as of January 2021, 75 percent of 24 states responding to a survey said they did not have a physical performance, whereas 20 percent said they did, and one respondent said they have required one since the NTSB recommendation. Of those 20 states that don’t require the test, nearly two-thirds stated that local school districts require it.
A survey conducted of School Transportation News readers in December found that 25 percent of 192 transportation directors/supervisors have implemented a fit-for-duty test for school bus drivers/attendants. Forty-six percent of those who implemented such training (46 respondents) said it was to meet a state requirement.
Chris Allen, the assistant program director for Community Council of Idaho Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, explained that his program was one that has not implemented such a test. Instead, he said, he relies on the federal DOT physical requirement, which he noted has worked successfully for his Head Start program as well as for the health of his bus drivers.
“At initial hire, we require new staff (bus drivers and bus monitors) to pass a general health physical,” he explained. “The DOT physical is much more stringent than our initial staff health screenings. We believe that the DOT physical is an adequate measurement for our Head Start bus drivers’ physical ability to perform their bus driving responsibilities.”
He said that each bus route is staffed with a minimum of one monitor to assist with the transportation responsibilities. The organization consists of 24 full-time drivers and uses predominately Type A buses with capacities ranging from 24 to 32 passengers. One multifunction school activity bus has a 15-passenger capacity. Each bus route typically has 12 to 15 students, Allen added.
“We believe with our transportation team of a bus driver and a bus monitor that our children are in good hands with these staffing combinations,” he said.
Allen recalled that last May, the organization had 19 of its 24 bus driver vacancies filled. Since then, the organization has recruited and trained three more drivers and is now only short two bus drivers. “We feel a professionally administered physical test for our CDL drivers is not worth the cost versus the benefit,” he explained, adding that a couple of years back another Head Start program started administrating a physical testing program. “We hired one of their drivers who did not pass that test. We felt safe with [them] driving our children. We would not want to lose one of our coveted CDL drivers because they were not able to pass a professionally administered physical test.”
He added that instances like drivers requiring surgery, who are pregnant or who have another medical condition are reviewed and taken into consideration. Allen noted that the program does require a doctor’s authorization for work. “In the past, the DOT physical has brought to the attention of a driver a medical condition that would require medication to control,” he said. “That driver received the medication needed to help with their health challenge and was able to drive safely for our program. We also have our MSHS bus drivers work 40 hours per week and some of those hours are made up of maintenance tasks around our facilities such as yard work and other activities that require physical health to accomplish.”
However, Diandra Neugent, the transportation manager for the Community Council of Idaho, said that physical fitness testing for school bus drivers should exceed the DOT physical. “I feel strongly that life is too precious to be lost at the expense of an avoidable misfortune that could have been avoided by simply being able to fully perform physically during an emergency,” she said. “I have been speaking with CCI [human resources] in regard to this being implemented along with our DOT testing.”
Neugent added that while their program doesn’t currently have additional physical fitness testing, she is asking HR to investigate implementing it.
Meanwhile, Jenny Robinson, the transportation general manager for Bethlehem Area School District in Pennsylvania, said the state has its own school bus driver physical that must be done yearly, and it’s closely based on the medical examiner’s form. However, her district has not implemented an additional fit-for-duty test at this time.
She explained that she’s worked in various states, some of which required physical performance tests for drivers and not monitors, and some districts that made it a requirement despite the state not. She noted that she finds it equally important for the driver and the monitor to go through the fitness tests, and she always asks herself, “would this person be able to evacuate students, if they had to?”
She said when previously working at an Arizona school district, one of the requirements was to drag a weighted bag (the average weight of a fourth grader) every two years.
“I will be honest with you and tell you that my thoughts on this [are probably] similar to a lot of people,” she said. “It’s something that you would really like to see but you’re hesitant to incorporate, even if you only did it at a district level. I want my drivers to be physically fit and I want them to be able to demonstrate that they can safely evacuate a bus and that they can get in and out of the bus easily without worrying if they’re going to fall down. I would really like to see that happen.
“But I understand the hesitancy as to why a lot of places don’t … everything points to the driver shortage. The driver shortage and [the fact] that it might hurt recruiting efforts,” she continued, speaking for what district leaders are considering.
She noted that other districts could be concerned about their aging driver population and not want to alienate or eliminate them from service due to not completing the test. “I totally understand that aspect of it. But that’s not going to matter to a parent in the event that you have a really nasty accident,” she said.
She said, however, at this time, transportation relies heavily on medical professionals to flag certain incidents. She noted that another aspect of the physical fitness tests is ensuring staff members are eating healthy and taking care of their bodies. She said districts need to offer healthy resources and incentives to staff.
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Bradley Carriveau, the director of transportation for Champaign Unit 4 School District in Illinois, said his state requires every driver to go through a school bus physical and medical qualification. The district also holds in-service training evacuations to ensure drivers are physically fit for the job.
The medical qualification, he said, looks at flexibility, like bending over and touching your toes, blood pressure, and if the drivers are on any medication. It also consists of a health and wellness check, which includes a yearly physical and a drug test.
He said he was a driver for an Indiana school district that implemented an agility-type test, where he was required to drag a weighted bag for a certain amount of feet, and he’s considered implementing something similar in Illinois. But he noted it could become a worker’s comp issue if someone gets hurt while performing such a test.
Marian Shade, the director of transportation for Othello School District in Washington, said the state requires driver compliance. This means drivers have to be in the driver’s seat belted and then be timed getting out of the back emergency exit. However, she added that Othello chose to go above and beyond that.
Shade explained she examined other district requirements and implemented some test items for Othello. Drivers are now required to go up and down the steps, switch from pressing the brake pedal to the accelerator, lift 50 to 75 pounds, and drag a dummy on a tarp for 30 feet.
The requirements were added prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year. She said during one of the safety meetings, each driver and monitor were taken through the agility test so that they could see they were capable of doing it beforehand. She noted that a couple of staff members chose to retire, instead of completing the agility test. But that was 100 percent their decision, she said, noting that they probably could have passed the test.
In fact, in the same STN reader survey sent out last December, 22 percent of 45 respondents stated that they’ve had to terminate a school bus driver/aide because they were physically unfit for the job.
“Everybody that we’ve hired and everybody that’s been here, has passed it without any issues and no concerns even about it,” Shade said, adding that drivers ended up having fun with the activity. “I think that they were surprised to see what they were capable of doing. And if we follow the job descriptions, you know, like the weight that they must be able to lift 75 pounds, all of this fit within those guidelines. [Such as] being healthy enough to walk 200 feet to get into your bus.”
She added that while the test is done yearly, it can be administered at any time. For instance, if a driver goes on medical leave for a knee or shoulder injury, and they’re released to come back, they must go through the agility test to ensure they can still do it.
Shade noted that at first, the district expected to lose drivers, but she said that regardless of a driver shortage, transportation makes safe transportation happen. She recommends other districts to implement such a test because it reduces liability for the district.
“You need to hire drivers to do the job that is expected of them, and if you hire somebody that has limits they might not be able to respond in an emergency the way that they should,” she concluded.