Bus drivers need nerves of steel, hearts of gold

The Washington PostSeptember 30, 2013 

Operating a school bus is not for the faint of heart. Drivers have to maneuver large ungainly vehicles down narrow neighborhood streets and winding country roads.

Weather -- snow and ice, rain, stifling heat -- can also rattle a bus driver’s nerves. Traffic becomes exponentially more daunting for someone trying to steer a 40-foot vehicle with the turning ratio of a cruise ship.

And because no one anywhere wants to get stuck behind a bus going the speed limit and stopping three times in a mile to pick up children, other vehicles constantly pull in front of buses or cut them off.

Then there are the passengers.

Children can be noisy, rude and unpredictable. Every parent knows that driving with just two kids in the back seat can get ugly, fast.

But what about having 70 faces in your rear-view mirror? Drivers must not only maintain order in the buses but also watch for kids darting in front of or behind the vehicle when it’s at a bus stop.

Given the long list of challenges, one might expect veteran drivers to be full of horror stories. But most -- while conceding that middle-schoolers are occasionally disrespectful and that the weather can be difficult at times -- are overwhelmingly positive about their jobs.

“The first year, I did think, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I driving a school bus?’ Because it’s a tough business,” said Patricia Vance, the coordinator for safety and training for Prince William County, Va. “And then afterward, I thought, ‘Wow, I love it.’ I came back every day because I loved it.”

The familiar school-bus-yellow paint debuted at the first School Bus National Minimum Standards Conference in 1939. Buses have gone from the horse-drawn “school cars” of the 1880s to the first steel-body model in 1927 to sleek, contemporary buses with air conditioning, automatic entrance doors and heated mirrors.

The American School Bus Council estimates that 480,000 buses transport more than 25 million students in the United States daily.

The buses rarely have serious accidents: Students are 20 times more likely to arrive at school alive when taking the bus than if a parent drives them, according to council data. That is in part because buses are designed for safety, with reinforced sides and high-back seats, and in part because the training is so rigorous.

Vance began driving a bus in 1973. She drove special-needs students until she moved to the office staff in the mid-1990s, she said. When she started, she would go to each of her students’ homes and introduce herself to the parents before the school year started.

“People think about all the challenges, but when I think about it, I think about all the kids, the smiles, the parents trusting you,” Vance said.

Still, there is an industry-wide school bus driver shortage, said Ed Bishop, director of the Prince William public schools’ Office of Transportation Services. Prince William started the 2013-14 school year about 45 drivers short of what it needs to run its fleet of more than 800 route buses.

“The problem in the industry is not attracting enough applicants, it’s not attracting the right applicants,” Bishop said. Only 20 percent of applicants for school bus driver positions in Prince William make it to the required training.

“Most people do not fail at this job because they can’t drive a school bus,” Bishop said. “They fail at this job because they don’t have the other characteristics that are required of a school bus driver: the moral turpitude, the driving record, the ability to handle discipline on the buses, the traffic, the hours, the weather.”

The median annual income for school bus drivers nationally was $27,580 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The job attracts many retirees who like having evenings, weekends, holidays and summers off. It’s also popular among parents of young children, who in some locales, are allowed to bring their kids on the bus with them while they work.

Bishop said that although it is a difficult job, he thinks that many of the drivers in the county would continue to work if their pay were cut in half, because they say they feel a responsibility to their passengers and their parents.

He said drivers who are obviously sick sometimes come to work anyway because they don’t want to let down “their” kids.

“It’s nice to hear that kind of attitude: They’re my kids. I’m responsible for them. I don’t trust them with anybody else,” Bishop said.

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