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School bus safety is everybody's responsibility

From a statistical standpoint, a school bus with or without seat belts is the safest vehicle your child will ever ride in, and that includes your own car. However, statistics are meaningless to the parents of those children who have become victims, or casualties, of school bus or school bus stop related accidents.

When these accidents occur, people always wonder why. How could this have happened? Could it have been prevented? The truth is every bus procedure and rule regarding the safe transportation of your child could be followed letter perfectly, and still something _ at any place or at any time _ could go wrong.

However, there are things other drivers and parents can do to make bus trips safer. First, do not follow a school bus too closely, because in case you haven't noticed, our big yellow vehicles make frequent stops. Please take notice of the lights across the top of the bus in front and back. The amber lights mean caution; the bus is on approach to a bus stop. When the bus is stopped, the red lights come on and the stop arm extends. Some drivers seem to think our amber lights mean speed up to get around the school bus before the red lights come on, because this dangerous practice takes place all too frequently.

Another dangerous practice is running through our stop arms completely. Another bad driver trick is getting ahead of us to beat us to a turn the instant they see our directional signal come on. Do not ever do this, period. School bus stops are usually placed a few hundred feet from street corners. There could be children somewhere near the corner you're getting ready to careen around, and you could hit them if they are in or near the edge of the road.

Drivers must keep two things in mind. First, regardless of the number of rules there are, children don't always do what they are told. Second, rural roads, paved or unpaved, seldom have shoulders, so expect children to be very close to the road in these areas.

Parents, you have a responsibility to help us keep your children safe as well. Please tell your children to stay out of the road while waiting for a bus, and please tell your children not to ever run, or even walk toward the bus while it is moving. Any of these actions could be a stage setter for a tragedy.

When a child runs toward a bus, it forces us to make a quicker, less safe stop. Even if your children get on and off the bus right in front of your door, please do not let them dash for the bus until it is stopped because we will still stop short out of reflex to prevent them from running into one of our many blind spots. If your children must cross the street to board a bus, tell them to look for traffic then look at their bus driver and wait for his or her nod before they proceed across the street, because from our vantage point in the bus, we can see things that you or your child may not notice.

Tell your children never to run back to the bus after they exit. Most elementary bus drivers are on guard for "run backs" because this is something small children are more likely to do than high school students, but the consequences for either could be lethal. Keep in mind that once the students exit the bus, and are clear of the bus from all visible points, the bus driver is preparing the bus to continue to the next stop by putting the bus back in gear, releasing the parking brake and shutting off the red bus stop lights. If children run back for something, and the driver doesn't see them in time because of a distraction inside or outside the bus, the children could be hit.

Tell your children not to reach for their friends in the windows after they get off the bus. If they were to get their hands caught in the window even momentarily, they could fall and be crushed by the rear wheels before we could stop the bus.

Tell your children not to stick their heads, hands, arms or hair out the window while the bus is moving down the road. This common action is extremely dangerous. If your children had their heads out the window of a school bus traveling at the common residential speed of 30 mph and struck a tree limb, the impact could be fatal.

Sometimes traffic or road conditions force bus drivers to make tighter turns or to come closer to things than we prefer. We do watch for children popping their heads out the window, but we can't see everything all the time.

These are just a few of the many challenges school bus drivers face every day. I don't think parents, teachers or administrators can quite grasp what it is like driving down the road with 40 to 70 children behind you with no one to watch them except yourself through a mirror that you can scan only in intervals in a vehicle that is large enough and heavy enough to go through a house.

After thinking about this, it makes you wonder how we do it every school day and make it look easier than it really is. The answer rests in what it takes to make a good bus driver.

A good school bus driver is one part training, one part ability and two parts caring. You can be trained and you can acquire ability, but the minute you stop caring you need to consider a career change before you mess up and hurt somebody.

I have been a school bus driver for Citrus County for several years, and I like my job despite the negatives. I transport children to and from Citrus Springs Middle School and Citrus Springs Elementary School, and I care about every child I transport _ even the little darlings I have to write disciplinary referrals on. The mere thought of witnessing one of the kids from my bus being seriously injured on the bus or at a bus stop scares me.

Some might say I care more than the parameters of my job require. I could not disagree more. It is this level of caring that instills the fear that keeps me on guard and vigilant in my goal to make every trip as safe as I can for all the children who ride my bus.

Like most bus drivers, I do my job knowing I am never more than a heartbeat or a distraction from catastrophe. Regardless of my training, my ability or how much I care for the children who ride my bus, I still need the help of everyone to prevent my worst nightmare, and that is having to kneel down beside the broken body of a child who once respectfully or affectionately called me "Mr. Kim."

Kim Morrison of Homosassa is a school bus driver for the Citrus County School District. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do no necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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