by Jim Bulls
Recently Channel 30 News aired a special on the unsafe school buses on our valley roads. I was surprised to see that the school transportation department featured in the newscast was Reedley’s Kings Canyon Unified. However, I wasn’t so surprised that the only problem cited was exhaust emissions. Many people are unaware that the school bus is the safest mode of transportation known to man. I am an advocate for clean air and I am aware of the emission problems all internal combustion engines have, but before everyone gasps for air and holds their nose when they are around a school bus, let’s explore how safe that school bus actually is.
Taking Kings Canyon Unified for instance, many years and a few superintendents ago; the transportation department was in shambles. The majority of busses had been red tagged for safety violations and the superintendent of schools ran the risk of arrest for child endangerment. It took the guidance and hard work of the new transportation director, John Clements, and shop foreman, Allen Moore, to turn the department into one of the most respected in the valley.
A school bus is a formidable piece of equipment that takes the human element to breathe life into it. It starts with the State and the Department of Education, in accordance with the California Highway Patrol, who oversees the whole spectrum of the bus transportation family. Every CHP office has a transportation officer, who could be considered the “grandfather” on the school bus family tree. Then comes each school transportation director, who is the “father” caring for the rest of his “family”, mechanics, bus drivers and students riding the bus.
The California Highway Patrol reviews each bus maintenance log, as well as an annual equipment and safety inspection of every school bus in California. Kings Canyon Unified’s transportation mechanics compete with other transportation departments throughout the valley for the fewest red tags received at inspection time. Having the least amount of red tags instills a sense of pride throughout the whole transportation department.
School bus drivers and the mechanics are trained to drive the bus. When my bus driver training class started, there was standing room only with about 50 prospective school bus drivers. The teacher gave us an outline covering the next eight weeks that would culminate in our final test at the highway patrol office. By the next class session there were plenty of vacant seats because less that 20 people were left from the initial group.
The reason for the drop in numbers could have been that people didn’t want to face the background check–the same given to prospective highway patrolmen and women–or that they didn’t think they would pass the drug test or the physical. Felons cannot drive school buses. School bus drivers are considered to be intoxicated with a .01% alcohol count. The physical is more stringent than the one given for a pilot’s license.
By the time we went to the Highway Patrol office for our final testing, there were only three left in the class.
Having passed the CHP final tests, you are now a school bus driver. However, there is one test yet to come: you place two-and-a-half classrooms of students in a 12×40 foot space and then turn your back on them.
One driver, on his first day of bus driving, picked up his students in the morning. That afternoon he took his place in line to take home his high school students. He pulled out the gate at North Avenue, rounded the curve onto Reed, made a right on Manning and then drove back into the transportation yard. He parked in front of the dispatcher’s office, set his brake, took the key, went into the office and tossed the keys on the dispatcher’s desk, saying “I can’t do this anymore.”
This scenario is played over and over again in every bus driving class.
Bus drivers must complete 10 hours of certified training per year to maintain their Class B bus driver’s license with passenger endorsement. As with the school bus maintenance records, the CHP also inspects your personal file, insuring that you pass inspection. The department trainer will keep on top of their driver’s records, making sure they are in compliance. Over 95% of all accidents are due to human error. California bus drivers are the best trained and most tested in America. They are considered the best, and California sets the standard for all other states.
Everybody in the transportation department works together to take care of the most precious and valuable cargo handled on the road…your children.
The school bus did not evolve into the safest mode of transportation on the road over night. The California Highway Patrol and other state troopers across America had a hand in this evolution. Sadly it didn’t happen without loss of life. As these officers, across the nation, investigated bus accidents and inspected the wreckage, they came up with ways to improve the design and structural stability of the bus to prevent or greatly reduce the chance of fatalities.
One such accident involved a bus careening over a guard rail, landing on its roof which collapsed on to the seat backs in the passenger compartment. This pancake effect resulted in no exit or entry into the bus until a cutting torch arrived to cut out access ports. Taking the data from this accident, bus manufacturers installed inner roll cages between the roof and headliner panels. Now the bus can withstand being dropped on its top from a height of 30 feet without caving in.
The findings also resulted in double padded, high-back seat higher than most students’ heads. No more low-back bus seats, surrounded with pipe to crack heads or knock out teeth.
The inspection found that the air brake emergency system worked perfectly and had the driver pulled the knob, the bus would have stopped and the rollover accident would have been prevented. The investigation found that the driver was unfamiliar with the bus–he normally drove semi-trucks. Had the driver been familiar with the equipment and the location of the brake knob, it would have been second nature for him to have pulled it. This finding resulted in a revision to the Class A driver’s license. The holder of a Class A license can no longer drive a bus without having a passenger endorsement.
Other safety features added to school buses through the years have included emergency hatches in the roof and windows that can be kicked out and used as emergency exits. The horizontal black bands you see along the sides of the bus are actually guard rails the keep a vehicle from penetrating the bus. In most instances the students ride above the area most likely to be hit by a car or pickup in a collision. The roof and siding of the school bus is made of steel rather than the fiberglass used in commercial or tour buses. Commercial and tour buses also do not the reinforced roll cage of a school bus.
Caution lights, flashing red lights and stop signs for student boarding and unloading have also improved. In an additional effort to provide student safety, the bus driver is now a crossing guard when children cross the street.
This brings us to exhaust emissions: they are considered a safety hazard because of polluting the air. Now, if Channel 30 would have looked around Kings Canyon’s bus yard with a little more interest, they might have discovered that the district has been on the forefront of school bus clean air technology.
Their first venture into clean air buses was in the early 1990s when they added three methanol-fueled Carpenter buses. This was an unfavorable experiment. The onboard computer would shut the bus off for no apparent reason. As soon as they could be converted to diesel they were. Next came the more successful compressed natural gas buses and the International Navastar with green diesel technology. Those were followed by the International conventional buses with the shiny chrome grills that are hybrid electric vehicles. Kings Canyon Unified is the only school district in the United States to have all electric buses.
There is an incentive program from the government to “crush a bus; get a bus”. It is mandatory to destroy old school buses. The engines cannot be used again and the bus bodies are cut in half and crushed. For every old bus demolished, the district receives a new, non-polluting school bus. Right now, there are two Crowns and one Carpenter awaiting demolition.
If the Channel 30 reporter really wants an accurate story, he should attend one of the school bus workshops at Sierra High School. He could ride along with the mechanics, bus drivers and driver trainers, and attend their classes. He could get the real story just by talking with these professionals. These semi-annual trainings are almost like a family reunion, where the bus transportation “family” comes together.
For more local and California history articles, including more Reedley history articles by Jim, be sure and check out our Hometown History section.