Can We Talk? Can We Question?

The school bus community has faced many issues over the years: accidents and fatalities, new technologies, fueling alternatives, federal licensing changes, loading and unloading safety, increased numbers of homeless students, funding losses and more.


But like many other elements of our society, the on-going and prolonged COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us and stretched us in ways we may have not seen coming. It is making us consider alternative and interim strategies that may not have been considered prior to the pandemic.  The question in my mind is: will we learn from these alternatives and perhaps consider them as viable paths forward as part of our industry and profession?  Or will we step back into the ‘old normal’ because that’s what we knew and what made us comfortable?  

So let’s talk. Let’s ask questions.  Let’s make it comfortable and safe to ask questions and challenge the status quo.  And then let’s put faith in our common commitment to the safety of our children to allow us to do the right things.

What are some of the challenges we face that require us to have open, candid, and productive conversations around our profession?  Let’s sample literally just a few:

Vehicles

The yellow school bus, as currently constructed, is an American icon.  That makes any suggestion of stepping away from it or considering alternatives akin to sacrilege, especially to someone as wedded to tradition as this author.  Just to be clear.

But the recent and increasingly distressing shortage of drivers (see below) forces us to consider what options we will have should the shortage deepen and extend into the foreseeable future.  I have spoken with some districts and operators who wonder whether they need to purchase more vehicles that allow for non-CDL drivers to transport children safely.  

But what would those vehicles look like from state to state and how might such developments affect the trusted FMVSS standards that have kept children safe over all these years?  How would they be lighted?  What kind of safety signage would be installed? What color would they be?  What levels of training would drivers need to receive for safe operations?  Should there be limits on the kinds of transportation to which such vehicles can be deployed?

Recent expansion of alternate transportation providers offers a glimpse into how such vehicles can be incorporated and how they can ease the difficulties many schools have in finding drivers, particularly for low-incidence routes and needs.  School districts and all operators must look honestly at those models as trend lines and precedents that will affect transportation in the short-term and longer term.

Drivers

Our drivers are the lifeblood of our industry and the underlying reason our children get to school and home safely each day.  But we are facing a situation where the number of individuals willing to get appropriately licensed to drive school buses may not be sufficient to the task.  

What do we do if that trend continues?  I would suggest the answer to that question will be linked pretty directly to the discussions we are willing to have in relation to vehicles (see above).  The questions abound and might include our accepting that the CDL alone does not keep children safe.  Indeed, it is the “P” and “S” endorsements and state-sponsored training that gives drivers the skills and routines they need for safety.  The skills and knowledge embedded in the endorsement process and state programs provide a road map for us to explore as we consider the “who” in school bus safety.

Regardless of how we approach the question, we will want as an industry to ensure high levels of safety training, background checks, physical and mental health stability and all those factors that contribute to safety and to the reliability of our driver pool. 

To be sure, the questions are out there now, and we need to address them or they will be addressed for us.  Leadership involves taking seminal issues on directly and seeing them to their resolution.

Aides

For the most part, school buses operate with one adult aboard: the school bus driver.  Over time, we have witnessed increased incidences of bullying on school buses as well as threats of violence or intrusions onto the bus by individuals seeking to make trouble.  This has placed greater responsibility, stress, and risk on the shoulders of school bus drivers who are ultimately responsible for the safe transit of our children.  

As a result, we need to ask ourselves if safety on the school bus could be enhanced by the presence of another adult aboard.  Are we ready to enter into that conversation and to advocate for such a change in how buses operate?  Note that the public would likely be surprised that there are no other adults on most yellow buses.

The School Day

The school day and the school year as we know it will continue to evolve.  Schools are exploring changes to start times for older students, which will markedly change our routing and scheduling strategies.  Moreover, as states look into the concept of full school year, or expanded summer programming, we will face challenges to our maintenance programs and our relationship with our drivers who might otherwise not be engaged over the summer months. We will see more schools offer students the option of remote learning and or of attending alternative schools to accommodate the learning needs of our children.  As those directions expand, how will that affect school transportation?  What kind of routing will be needed?  How will we manage increased stops in new locations?  What kinds of vehicle selection and driver qualifications will be needed to enable us to meet these new needs? The alternative is to step away from those discussions and remaining ‘in our lane’ with no changes.  As we have seen over our history, that approach does not usually bode well.

The Yellow School Bus IS Safer

While we consider all options and strategies, we can never lose sight of the fact that reliable entities such as NHTSA and the Transportation Research Board have gone on record countless times to extol the safety and efficacy of the yellow school bus.  Indeed, the overall and historical safety record of the yellow bus IS our BRAND.  

As we explore options to our current strategies – as we must – we cannot lose sight of the trust that the public has in the yellow school bus.  That makes it incumbent on us to ensure that any other vehicle or driver we engage to move our children from home to school can be counted on to meet the safety standards we have achieved.  That requires a discipline of determining just what the elements are that actually keep the kids safe and building from there.  I believe that the amazing professionals involved in and dedicated to this industry are up to the task.


Peter Mannella (pfman5@gmail.com) is chair of the NAPT Public Policy Committee.

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