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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Charlie Hood, school transportation director for the Florida Department of Education

16

October

School bus safety week begins Monday, and the goal remains to have kids get to and from their bus stops, and then to school, without incident. It's not always easy, as we've seen here with some high profile accidents in the past years. So the push remains ongoing to teach students, parents, drivers and others about the way to keep everyone safe. The state has created a website with lots of diagrams and information to explain the laws. And Charlie Hood, Florida's director of school transportation, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the details.

Is there a problem in Florida right now with regard to school bus and transportation safety?

Well, it's always important. we use the annual occasion of school bus safety week for a couple of reasons. Safety week has been going on since 1966 nationally. It's always the third full week of October. But safety week is mainly about two main themes. One of which is to give us the opportunity to celebrate the professionalism and the dedication to safety of not just school bus operators, but the technicians and operators and everybody in the school transportation team who help us keep the kids so safe. And the other focal point especially this year of the Florida campaign is to educate motorists and students and schools and everybody about what are the things they can do to keep students safe in school transportation.

What are some of the things that everyone can do to make sure that kids are safe when they're getting to the bus, and getting on, and all the way to school. I can imagine how many millions of miles, and how many thousands of children are on buses every single day.

Yeah. In Florida about a million kids a day. And buses travel about 280 million miles a year. So it's a big system. The things that different people can do, first off, it's a team effort. Everyone has a role in it. Parents are a big part of that equation. ... One of the biggest things they can do is get their children to and from the bus stop by walking and waiting with them in the morning, and waiting for them to arrive in the afternoon and accompanying them, if that's an option for them. Especially for the younger kids. Most everybody knows that younger kids don't have the same perceptual skills to negotiate traffic as safely as older children. So it's more important that the younger children be supervised if at all possible.

Parents can go over the bus rules with their kids. That's absolutely recommended. Be sure they know how to be safe in traffic. As it relates to the school be, be sure they stay a safe distance off the road when they wait for the bus. One of the biggest issues is making sure that children know they should never, ever bend over if they drop something in or near the bus. They should always make sure the driver knows right away and stay out of the danger zone right around the bus if something falls underneath it. Making sure kids know to only cross under the driver's direction. ... When they are riding in the bus, it is critical that they not engage in any type of behavior including getting up out of their seat that would distract the driver, who is trying to negotiate traffic.

Are bus drivers still supposed to pull over at the side of the road if the kids are too disruptive?

It's certainly a good technique if they can do that safely. ... That's a good practice when it's necessary.

Has it become any easier to find bus drivers who are qualified? I know for a while it was difficult for districts to find people.

Yeah. The job qualifications are extremely stringent. During the current job market they're not having as much trouble as they were. But recruiting and retaining qualified drivers is always a challenge for school districts. They have to have so many qualifications. They have to undergo federally required drug and alcohol testing. They have to have 40 hours of pre-service training. They have to undergo stringent criminal background checks just like teachers and other school employees. They have to pass hands-on and written testing to get their commercial drivers license with school bus endorsement. They have to pass a stringent annual physical examination ... based on federal requirements. So they've got quite a gauntlet of hurdles to jump before they can become school bus drivers.

After they get the job, I understand they are monitored regularly as well. ... So everybody knows they are still with a safe driver.

Absolutely. School districts are required to monitor their driving records on a regular basis including reviewing the entire record once a year but also reviewing any violations that might occur during the year. Of course drivers are required to self-report any significant violations. But districts also have a double check system with an automated driver report that comes once weekly. It's almost real-time reporting. ... There are a lot of not just pre-employment but also ongoing requirements that must be met.

I know there are a lot of parents who don't like to put their children on the school bus for whatever reason. They drive them to school. I wonder how much difficulty there is and what people can do to resolve the car traffic vs. bus traffic congestion that occurs outside and inside school grounds at drop-off and pick-up time.

That's become a real problem in recent years. Parents don't allow their kids to walk and bike as readily as they used to, or to be unsupervised during the day, understandably. As a result, a lot of parents are transporting their kids in their own cars. Or students, if they are old enough to drive, are transporting themselves and others, which is absolutely the least safe way they can get to school. So it has created a lot of congestion around schools. The American School Bus Council has done some research and estimated that every school bus takes the place of 36 cars that otherwise would have to be used to transport that same number of kids. So one of the solution to this problem, when it's available to them, is to just have the kids get on the yellow bus. We understand it's not always real popular for high schoolers to get on the yellow bus. They're not only safest, but as a form of public transportation not only is it cheaper for parents if they've got a bus ride for their kids ... it also reduces the overall pollution of all those cars relative to one bus. It saves energy. The American School Bus Council has estimated that school buses save 2.3 billion gallons of fuel per year nationally vs. if all those children were transported in cars. ...

You mentioned 'yellow bus' a couple of different times. Are they yellow because they stand out? Is that the reason they are yellow?

Yes. They're yellow with black coloration and striping and all they have. ... That coloration started in 1939 when the national education community identified the need to have purpose built vehicles that provided special safety features. And one of those safety features that they identified at that first congress on school transportation back in 1939 was that school buses should be some readily identifiable color, and school bus yellow is certainly a unique color that people associate with buses. We think it helps reduce driver distraction around buses when they see big yellow and think instantly, without even having to think about it, this is a bus and I better be careful.

Are there other things you can think of that people should be aware of?

The biggest thing that motorists in general can do to keep children safe is to not be distracted when they're around buses and to know the law about when they have to stop for buses. You know, texting, talking on the phone and all those other distractions that are so well publicized nowadays as being a danger in traffic are particularly a problem when motorists do them around school buses. We just hope the public understands that when they are around buses, the students and the bus deserve their full, undivided attention.
They need to know the law. You always need to stop behind a bus if you're going the same direction in Florida when it's stopped with the red lights flashing. ... And in most cases on a two lane or undivided highway you have to stop when you encounter a bus going the opposite direction. ... Knowing when to stop for a school bus and doing it reliably is the most critical thing that motorists can do. And it's obviously central to this year's school bus safety week theme of Stop on Red, Kids Ahead.

[Last modified: Friday, October 15, 2010 12:00pm]

    

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