October 19, 2023

Students on board – Keeping our students safe on school buses

Author: Molly Belmont
Source:  NYSUT Communications
bus safety
Caption: “My goal is to keep my students safe, and to teach them how to keep themselves safe, too." Amanda LaRock, Sandy Creek Professional Staff Association. Photo provided.

As head bus driver for Sandy Creek Central School District, Amanda LaRock’s highest priority is safety, not just during National School Bus Safety Week, but every week.

“My goal is to keep my students safe, and to teach them how to keep themselves safe, too,” said LaRock.

LaRock, a member of Sandy Creek Professional Staff Association, has been driving for the district for nine years, ever since her children were young. Initially, she took the job so she could be at home with her children, but she soon fell in love with it and in time, the passengers on her bus became her kids, too.

Each day, school bus drivers like LaRock transport 2.3 million children to and from school. Many of these School-Related Professionals are out on the road before dawn, crisscrossing the state to take students to athletic events, activities and school field trips.

School bus drivers complete mandatory safety training twice a year, in addition to any training needed to get and renew their commercial driver's license and endorsements.

When I caught up with LaRock in August, she and her team were prepping for their first safety training of the year, and easels were already set up around the conference room of the bus garage, with poster-sized time-elapsed photos illustrating just how quickly a school bus fire spreads.

“It only takes three minutes for the whole bus to go up,” LaRock said. “That’s why we do three evacuation drills a year.” At the beginning of the school year, it takes at least a minute for her students to exit the school bus, she said, but by the second drill, they are off the bus in 30 seconds – and that includes kindergartners. "I try to teach them not be chaotic – to take their time, but to do it fast,” she said.

The driver safety training also covers safe driving habits, first aid, emergency response and how to handle difficult behavior. LaRock said the training is comprehensive; she only wishes the other drivers they share the road with had access to it. “You have to keep your eyes out. Eighty percent of the cars on the road, the drivers have their cell phones out,” she said.

In June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published its latest Traffic Safety Facts, which includes School-Transportation Related Crashes between 2012 and 2021.

When looking at the 206 children who died in school-transportation related crashes from 2012–2021, NHTSA stated that 42 were occupants of school transportation vehicles, 80 were occupants of other vehicles, and 78 were pedestrians, including children who had just exited the bus.

In fact, injuries are most frequently caused when children are entering, exiting, or approaching the bus – inside what bus drivers call the “danger zone,” or the 10-foot zone that extends around all four sides of the bus. LaRock teaches students how to safely enter and exit the bus, but she cannot control the behavior of other motorists, and illegal school bus passing continues to be a major threat to student safety, she said.

“We have quite a number of people passing our school buses. It’s at least twice a week on Route 11,” she said. “It’s shocking how many people don’t notice a big school bus.”

In New York, there are about 50,000 buses being passed by cars every day. In 2019, union-backed legislation passed that allows school districts to install stop-arm cameras on buses. The cameras capture images of motorists who are illegally passing school buses; those images are then used to issue a summons to drivers.

“We have cameras by the tire and on the bus, and a button to mark the tape. Those have been extremely helpful. Before we just had to get down as much info as we could and try to report them, but this is a better tool,” LaRock said.

LaRock tries to enforce school rules on the bus, but she acknowledges that it is hard to regulate student behavior while you are driving. “When you’ve got 40 kids behind you, you learn to prioritize what’s loud versus what’s unsafe,” said LaRock.

In March, bus drivers and other SRPs went to the Capitol to lobby for legislation that would require a school bus attendant or monitor on all K–6 school buses transporting students.

“A bus aide would be super helpful,” LaRock said. “Then they could supervise the kids while I drive.”

In the meantime, she and her team will keep rolling along. “I feel like our drivers are well-trained. We have a strong safety record.”