JAK’s Jottings

The Amazing, Amazing Chase

An Amazing Annual driver training day:

School bus driver training is often tedious. There are qualification tasks, route issues, and repetitive instruction. Because it’s so important to make sure each person we employ is fully qualified, I never find these routine tasks boring or try to hurry people through them. I’m proud of the employees who take qualification seriously.

I can tell, while watching the drivers participate, who is really “getting it” and who is just there because they have to be. The drivers who fully engage are my best and favorite drivers. They are there because they want to be better and do more to keep their students safe. They are the elite.

This particular year we tried something new.

We planned a “Chase” for our drivers. They were assigned seventeen tasks. Each task, with one exception, was designed to teach them something they will need to know during the coming year.

Prior to deciding to embark on our “Chase” I did some research. I called the Wright County Sheriff’s Department and the State Patrol. I contacted the Superintendent of Schools and each building administrator. I talked to a road crew foreman,  a few local businesses (the TDS people, Dunn Brothers Coffee), and a couple employees.

Everyone was so enthusiastic about our intent, and thought the “Chase” would be a valuable and creative training tool. Each expert contributed something — a “rule of the game” or a location for an activity or creative input. This “Chase” would be a community effort.

I was excited about the teams of employees. Each team would include people from our various divisions; there would be a regular route driver, a special ed route driver, a trip driver, and a new employee. Each person on the team was there to contribute something important and unique. There would be ten teams in ten buses.

Ten buses, I thought, was a good number. Normally, we send upwards of forty vehicles on the road every day. These ten buses driving through town completing specific tasks would remind our community that SCHOOL IS NEARLY IN SESSION. I received two calls from community members who wondered what the buses were doing. One parent of a Kindergarten student said her daughter was so excited to see the bus coming she squealed!

The first task for each group was to perform the Pre-Trip Inspection during which a driver (in this case a team of drivers) inspects the bus for road worthiness. Our mechanics had deliberately disqualified each bus from road worthiness. We stood and waited to see which teams and which people would find the flaw in their bus.

Some buses were missing Body Fluid Clean-Up or First Aid Kits. Others needed a bulb replaced or didn’t have a fire extinguisher. Each flaw was subtle.

We were all impressed with how seriously the drivers took their Inspections, and by how well-matched the teams were. They all completed their tasks at about the same time and left for the sixteen other tasks.

Each team visited each school in the District to practice am and pm parking. They all went to put five gallons of fuel in their buses. Each team practiced a railroad crossing — important because ours in town are exempt, but they drive to other communities too — and an alley dock — important because most “accidents” occur while backing the bus.

We included two skills that most drivers don’t always experience: a wheel-chair tie down and a bus with a flat tire. We were able to qualify more drivers to expertly tie-down a wheelchair and show them what a flat tire feels and looks like.

Following the event, we studied GPS records to see how each vehicle navigated the various events. One of the rules of the game was that no team could violate a federal, state, local, or company law, rule, or policy. Some teams were much more efficient than others, and no one violated a speed restriction or did anything unsafe in traffic. Kudos to those drivers!

This event was also a team-building event. Our new, rookie employees met four or five other people who work for our company. Teams consisted of employees who rarely have the opportunity to interact. They were expected to share the seventeen tasks and talk to each other about the best way to complete each task.

For the most part, our employees were NOT excited when they left the training room to begin their “Chase”. But they were excited, happy, and brimming with stories when they returned. In fact, I’ve had more input from drivers following this meeting than I have had in the past. We plan to find more ways to give our drivers more hands-on training opportunities in the future.

Safe Driving!

When the Kindergarten Comes Marching In…

In my prior position as bus operations director, each March we met with Kindergarten parents for the annual “Kindergarten Round-Up”.   We follow with “Kindergarten Count-Down” in August. The March meeting starts the registration process for the Kindergarten students in Monticello. The August meeting involves the Kindergarteners themselves. They do fun activities with their teachers, tour their classrooms, and ride a bus.
From a transportation perspective, I’ve found great value in both segments of our Kindergarten program.
Within a few weeks of the March meeting, we have enough information to begin routing the Kindergarten for fall, a process that consumes the majority of our routing hours. We talk about some of the issues facing Kindergarten families, like daycare and split-custody situations.
The August meeting is the best part of our Kindergarten program. We spend a few minutes talking to parents — the only time we really do that during the thirteen years their students attend school. We explain how we start to build a relationship between the bus driver and the students and describe how we conduct school bus safety training. We share information about how and when to contact our company. At the close of the evening, we go for a bus ride.
It strikes me every year how very small these Kindergarten students are. They approach that big bus and the first step is — for some of them — thigh high. They are so enthusiastic about the first bus ride, while their parents are seeing a modern bus and all the changes and improvements since they rode the bus themselves. We demonstrate our “No Child Left Behind” technology and talk about the new GPS units.
After this night of practice, we see the Kindergarteners leave their parents and march on the bus with a little more confidence. We see them looking at their bus drivers more as kind and caring helpers than as strangers. We watch them march off the bus and into the school building for their first moments of their learning journey.
We’re so thankful to play the role we do with these brave little people!
Safe Driving!

The Hazards of Spring

Several years ago this month our community experienced the tragic deaths of three students riding one of our buses. I remember those students and their families every day, but most especially at this time of year.

Our community is not alone in experiencing tragedies in the spring of the year. The Kansas Department of Education presents a new study every year about school bus fatalities. The most recent report encompasses 38 years of data and the conclusions are as follows:

  • During the last 38 years, 57.4% of students killed in school bus-related crashes were killed by their own bus.
  • For 2007-2008, that statistic fell to 20% of fatalities caused by the school bus and 80% by passing motorists.
  • 66.1% of all fatalities occurred on the way home from school.
  • Most of the fatally-injured students were girls.
  • 55.6% of the fatally-injured students were between the ages of 5 and 7 (67% were between the ages of 2 and 8) and another 21.2% were between the ages of 10 and 14.
  • Thursdays are the most dangerous day of the week.
  • Most fatal injuries occur between March and September.

Increased driver education, better technology, and smarter riders have dramatically reduced the incident of fatal injury; of the 45 fatalities since 2004, there were 5 students critically injured in the most recent year. To put the figures in perspective, consider that 800 students were fatally injured in other vehicles (the family car, a friend’s truck, etc.) during the school bus commute hours of 6-9 am and 2-5 pm. Clearly, the school bus is a safe place for students.

Still, five students were fatally injured. How to we prevent those types of injuries?

  1. We must expect drivers be consistent when approaching a school bus stop, using warning and stop signals appropriately.
  2. We must require drivers be vigilant at all times when students are outside the bus, whether approaching or leaving.
  3. We must require that drivers’ attention be solely focused on activity outside the bus rather than activity inside the bus.
  4. We must expand and repeat public education so motorists understand to STOP and STAY STOPPED when red lights flash.
  5. We must teach our students to remain out of the roadway until the driver signals them to approach.
  6. We must teach our students to exit the bus and walk immediately to their own driveway or designated safe location, again watching for the driver’s signal.
  7. We must expect law enforcement to ticket people who fail to obey stop arm signals.

We must expect the judicial branch to penalize those people who appear in court.
There are very few instances in life when there is no room for error. These critical seconds our students are outside their buses is one such instance!

Safe Driving!


Times They Are A-Changin’

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway

Don’t block up the hal

lFor he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside

And it is ragin’.

It’ll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’.

Bob Dylan, 1963

It must be true: history does repeat itself, for these words, popular in 1963, are true today as well.

Times… they are a-changin’!

Though the media has taken a somewhat pessimistic view and headlines scream panic-inducing “facts,” what’s happening in the world is not always a bad thing.

Consider this: for the first time since Depression-era American, Americans are learning to spend what they can afford. I’m excited by the prospect of my sons living lives free of overwhelming personal debt. What a revolutionary concept!

We’re experiencing something of a paradigm shift in the bus industry too.

A new school bus manufacturer has appeared in the industry, experts are transforming seating compartment issues, and manufacturers build buses that meet strict EPA requirements.

It’s the last that I wish to address here.

Within the confines of existing equipment and regulatory issues, our companies can join in on environmental initiatives.   In my past experience as a school bus operations director, we used alternative fuels for a decade, since long before they were required. One year we conducted a non-scientific study by pouring fuel from three different sources into mason jars. We placed those jars outside on a picnic table and observed what happened to the fuel in the varying temperature. We learned several things:

1. The fuel distributor we use had the best quality fuel, and theirs wasn’t the most expensive of the fuels.
*The fuel remained clear the longest.
*The fuel took the longest to gel in the coldest temperatures.
2. Lots of interesting things happen to fuel in the cold — and in the heat. For example, the density and color change.
3. There’s a lot of bacteria in commercial fuel.
4. The fuel doesn’t often gel in the buses, but it could gel in the fuel pump (which is why we require buses be always half full of fuel).

I was oddly fascinated by the fuel experiment.

Fuel and emissions have caught public attention nationwide. I studied some California emissions information several years ago, and was surprised to learn about harmful emissions from school buses. There were some flaws in the California tests and the results were heavily skewed by the action committee that published them, but it made me think about our industry and how we wanted to steward the world.

Ultimately we enacted a strict no-idle policy, instructing drivers to super heat their buses while driving, and shut off the bus while parked more than one minute. What happens in the cold? Same policy. Buses do not heat while idling. They heat while moving. The manufacturer’s suggested idle time on cold mornings is five minutes. There is no reason to idle a bus and every reason to avoid it.

Any new policy meets with some resistance and this was no different. To date, I believe we’ve achieved a fairly consistent success rate with our drivers. They know to shut off their buses.

Two employees reported satisfaction about our policy.

“I drove for another company the other day,” said Matt, our shop mechanic. “It didn’t take me long in the morning to realize how thankful I am for our no-idle policy. I left the bus yard with a headache and feeling nauseous.

“A driver reported the same physical symptoms while parked behind a bus left idling in a special-needs loading zone at one of the local elementary schools.

I’m thankful we’ve done what we could for our drivers and our students. Yet there’s no way to measure how our small efforts have impacted our environment.

The federal government is weighing in with their own suggestions for emissions standards. The new standards don’t change our idle policy, but enhance the effort to reduce emissions. The latest EPA requirements have resulted in a newly-designed engine to be purchased in 2010 buses. The newly enacted standard limits emission of nitrogen oxides to 0.2 grams per brake horsepower hour from 1.2 g/bhp. The problem with the standards is they won’t significantly change emissions until all old buses have been modified or replaced.

We wanted a way to more quickly improve emissions. A year ago we signed a contract with Project Green Fleet to retrofit our oldest buses with equipment that will limit their emissions immediately. It’s been an interesting project. We agreed to participate for five years. Periodically we need to report certain information to the Project so they can determine how effective the equipment is. In exchange, the retrofit of our vehicles is free. I’m excited to have data measuring the improvements to show our drivers and community.

I read some interesting statistics related to reducing emissions in the March 2009 edition of the Minnesota School Bus Operator Association newsletter, The Operator.

School buses save energy and money, declares the president of the association, Thomas Hey (Marshall, MN). Here’s how:

    • Each school bus driving 12,000 per year consumes 1,715 gallons of fuel.
    • Each school bus replaces 36 family vehicles.
    • The 36 vehicles consume approximately 6,500 gallons of fuel for the trips to and from school.
    • Using the bus instead saves 4,800 gallons of fuel per bus per year, resulting in a national savings of 2.3 billion gallons of fuel and more than $6 billion.
  • For the teen driver, the savings is substantial. The average student living five miles from school saves approximately $686 in fuel.

Thus, concludes Hey, “not only are we the safest form of transportation, we are also the most economical.”

Safe Driving!