Roy Exum: A School Bus Primer

Thursday, August 10, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Over 20,000 Hamilton County public school students climbed onto school buses this morning for “The First Day of School.” The first ‘official face’ they will see every day is the man or woman who will take them to school and bring them back home in a tremendously complex puzzle. Imagine 231 routes each day that will total over 19,000 miles in the very same day. During the school year the mileage equals right at 3.5 million and – as it has been since time immemorial – the bus driver becomes each child’s best friend.

During the last school year, I befriended some bus drivers and I am the first to realize how lucky we are to start blending more hometown buses into the Department of Education’s goal to be the best system in the South.

Our community will never forget the universal grief we shared when a catastrophic school bus wreck took the lives of some Woodmore Elementary students last year. The tragedy brought into razor sharp focus the huge role that our buses play in our children’s education. So when I fretted over the news some children have been told they must be at their bus stop at 5:30 a.m. this morning, one of my bus-driving friends took the time to enlighten me about what I feel we all should know – especially parents -- about school buses in Hamilton County.

Due to the loathsome fear and ridiculous jealousy that still permeates our school district, this person asked their name not be used but – believe me – the author is a long-time veteran in a school bus and regarded by peers as the “one of the best in the business.”

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As I have told you before, the deaths of the Woodmoore kids broke the hearts of many bus drivers. I saw drivers, male and female, with tears rolling down cheeks, hands trembling, voices cracking. Most of us consider the kids on our buses to be "Our Kids". We get attached to them. Many of us see the same kids from kindergarten to high school graduation.

They become family. Later we see their names in the papers, sometimes for awards, college graduations, and weddings, occasionally in the arrest sheets or obits.  Then one day that kindergarten kid that cried his first day on the bus 18, maybe 20 years ago, is at the bus stop with one of their own kids. The cycle starts again.

Over the years I have fed more kids than you could imagine that get on my bus with rumbling bellies. I know other bus drivers have done the same. I have gone to bat with school administrators for kids that for some reason have gotten in trouble. I have gone to parents to warn them after hearing their kids talking about planning stupid stuff like running away. I have reported parents for child abuse.

There once was a billboard in town that asked parents if they knew who their daughter's boyfriend was, their bus driver does. It's true, it is really true. We often know what a child is up to better than a parent does.

First, there are no 92 passenger school buses in Hamilton County. There never have been, to my long time knowledge, any 92 passenger buses built. I could be wrong, but I think 99.99 percent not.

These days there are usually 28 physical seats on a bus, with three elementary kids to a seat. That gives you 84 elementary-sized kids on a "big" bus, or 56 high school kids where there are two bigger kids per seat. State Code stipulates 13 inches per child. That question is literally on the School Bus Endorsement test for prospective bus drivers. This means 13 inches for a little child, obviously the high school's starting offensive tackle isn't going to fit in 13 inches.

Occasionally there is a single seat removed from in front of the side emergency door on rear engine buses, or a pair of 2 passenger seats at the back of a front engine bus that would allow better egress from the emergency exits. This would give you an 81 or 82 passenger bus but the HCDE Department of Transportation does not normally let these buses on routes.  (They can be used for field trips.)

There may still be a couple of old 90 passenger buses, but now they are "elderly" and not long before mandatory retirement. HCDE Transportation Department only pays drivers for 84 and 72 passenger buses. Except for the smaller Special Ed buses, there are not supposed to be other sizes. Some 90 passenger buses might still be being built, but not used here unless grandfathered in.

Tennessee state law prohibits bus routes longer than 3 hours a day. Period. End of Sentence.

This, of course, breaks down to a max of 1.5 hours for morning and 1.5 for afternoon routes. I know from extensive experience that the Transportation Director and the routing department goes to great lengths to keep from having routes exceeding these time frames. Even the longest routes in Hamilton County are set up to avoid this limit.

If someone is telling you they have kids on a 2-hour morning or afternoon route, I would strongly suggest this be reported if you can verify it. It will be remedied. But first you need to determine if the route is actually more than 1.5 hours. Parents are known to freak out by looking at published schedules that are not accurate. Occasionally there are circumstances that keep buses off schedule, such as the massive traffic flow usually happening the first week or 2 of school, breakdowns and non-related accidents along the route.

I suggest that parents should give things a week or two to settle down before howling at the moon. What may be going on is sometimes the routing department's computer software looks at a route, looks at the number of stops on it and based on factors such as distance and school start-times the computer publishes a route schedule to start at a specific time.

The problem with this is it is a stupid computer and not the driver setting the times. Drivers often see the computer setting times to start on a route that are insane...  I have seen on my route, where my morning second-tier elementary school route starts 15 minutes BEFORE the computer says my first tier high school route has ended. These times are reported on the county's transportation website as gospel. Trust me, they are not.

As an example of why this occurs, the computer is given a basic amount of time taken to SLOWLY stop the bus, get the kid across the street, safely on the bus (which includes time for the kid to find a seat and sit down which is mandatory by state law) and then the driver shuts the door and SLOWLY accelerates up to normal travel speed.

Unfortunately, the kid used to determine these times must have been mostly genetic a turtle and lives on the side of the street away from the bus’s passenger door. The time the computer is given as a time per stop reference point is twice as long as actually needed. Kids get on buses faster (especially in the cold or rain), don't fool around finding an open seat because they are inclined to sleep the rest of the way to school or they want to gossip. Today’s new buses accelerate faster than the time the computer is allowing.

Don't get the idea that the buses are burning rubber and scratching out. My old 6,000-pound pickup has about the same horsepower as my 36,000-pound bus does (240 hp) and can run circles around my bus. Most buses are under-powered or geared for better fuel economy on the upper end and simply cannot accelerate all that fast.

We go to great lengths to have our doors facing the kids at their stops to avoid having them cross streets (because there are a lot of IDIOT drivers that like to run stop signs), although this is not possible in some of the really rural routes. There are literally places within Hamilton County -- usually in the heavily urban areas- - where a bus will stop at an intersection on the north side of a street and another bus stops at the same intersection on the south side of the street at the same time, or shortly after, to avoid dangerous drivers running over kids.

Please consider the state code stipulates that ALL vehicles must stop for a school bus stop sign except for 2 situations... first an emergency vehicle running a siren and flashing lights on an emergency call and second a vehicle on the other side of a medium (divided highway). This includes ALL LANES. Even if the road is a 6 lane highway ALL vehicles must stop. They must not resume travel until after the school bus has started moving. This does not mean when the bus’s stop sign has been retracted and the flashing lights are out, it means AFTER the bus has started moving.

It also means that bicycles must stop for a school bus letting kids off. I cannot trust bicyclers, they think they own the road and frequently do not follow the rules of the road. I have had multiple occasions when one of these bicyclers has driven THROUGH a crowd of kids exiting my bus without even slowing down. They pass the bus on the right side of the road and keep going. Running through stop signs is not a problem for them.

These cyclists are almost always the ones dressed in these sleek racing suits, riding these high dollar racing bikes. I do not have a problem with bikers riding down the road as long as they follow the rules of the road. They pay taxes for the roads just like the rest of us. But they demand to be treated with respect but often do not respect traffic laws or other vehicles.

The burden of responsibility we feel for the kids riding our buses is a heavy, heavy load. It is our job, and indeed for some of us, our life's work to protect these kids. We are responsible for getting these kids SAFELY to and from school. The broad brush of distrust we have now been painted with is not one we deserve.

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A parent can access the Hamilton County Department of Education website (kindly remember Ohio and other states also have “Hamilton Counties” so make sure you access Tennessee) and under the “Transportation” header you can access bus stop information. David Eaves is the HCDE’s new transportation supervisor and, for the next two weeks, has a “bus hotline” to handle all inquiries.

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