Secrets from the school bus

A local bus driver tells all (maybe more than you want to know)

If you are having relationship issues, or gas, your child’s school bus driver probably knows about it.

Working with kids was new to me when I started driving a school bus 12 years ago. I expected to hear rambunctious chatter and some interesting conversations, but I was not prepared to hear about the personal things going on at home.

School bus drivers are often the first person a child sees outside their family each day and many times, especially younger children, will want to let us know what kind of night or morning they had. I have been told about family arguments that happened the night before, or some detail about a rushed morning, as a child climbs the stairs to find a seat. I have learned to be empathetic but to quickly change the subject when it is personal.

On one sports trip I was embarrassed for the mom whose son announced how bad his mom’s gas was, loudly enough for the whole team, coaches and I to hear.

But not to worry, we also hear about how great you are, too.

We hear about everyday things like what your son hopes you are making for dinner because it is his favorite and you are such a good cook. We hear about cool trips your family takes and about how they cannot wait to give you their Mother’s or Father’s Day present.

Keeping an eye out

There can be up to about 72 or so passengers on a full-sized school bus and while we can hear some conversations, mostly up in front, it is impossible to hear what 60 to 70 children are talking about.

Often parents will want to know what the driver was doing while an inappropriate conversation or action took place on the bus.

It is impossible to keep track of or know exactly what that many children are doing at the same time while I’m driving the bus and glancing in the mirror every few seconds. We cannot see or hear everything that goes on. The seat backs are high for safety reasons and most of the time we cannot even see some of the smaller children unless they are hanging out of their seats, and then we are asking them to sit correctly in their seats.

Sometimes we have to rely on the kids themselves to tell us if something is wrong because we can’t see or hear it, or we rely on parents to report an issue when they hear about it from their child. Many buses across the state now have cameras, which can be a great tool for reviewing these reports.

Most of the time the kids do a good job of monitoring each other. Sometimes too good of a job.

Hearing things shouted out like, “Kate is not sitting right,” and “John won’t stop saying ‘butt’,” and, “I don’t have any room!” and “Hey move over,” all at the same time is a daily occurrence.

Triaging what needs to be addressed while being cut off by a driver who is tired of having to stop behind you can get tricky.

At the same time we rely on the children for help, we also have to rely on other drivers to be doing the right thing. Most drivers are respectful and great about stopping far enough back when we are dropping off and picking up students. But when a driver suddenly makes a wrong move on curvy road, it can be heart-stopping.

Rules of the road

Often children have to cross the street to their stop. If someone gets impatient and speeds up to blast through the stop sign just as a student is about to make their way across the street, it can be scary. I have had to scream and honk my horn to get a young child’s attention so that they stop walking and avoid getting hit. We tell children to stop, wait and look for the drivers signal before they cross but that does not always happen.

Once while driving a smaller bus I had a stop where it took a few minutes for the student to board, sit down and put his seat belt on (we are required on small buses to wait until a student is belted in to leave the stop).

A driver behind me pulled up to the side of the bus screaming and swearing at me about how the stop was taking too long and exactly how he felt about me as a driver and about the students on the bus. He peeled out; we could hear his tires screech as he raced off. I was stunned. I could not gather my thoughts enough to get his license plate number, never mind remember it even if I did.

While days like those happen on the bus, most rides go smoothly. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, children are 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a bus instead of traveling by car.

Locally there has been an effort by the New Hampshire School Transportation Association to gather data on where illegal passing is happening most often.

Walter Perry, executive director of NHSTA, says Operation Safe Stop (the most recent one-day project was May 1, 2018; 20-plus communities participated) gives the organization a sample of what is happening in the state concerning bus stop safety. Next school year they will gather more data to compare.

In the meantime parents and others can report any passing they see to the police or bus company and, Perry added, if parents have their children in drivers education courses and are just getting their license, they should go over the laws about passing school buses with them.

Andrea Bushee Belanger is a school bus driver, freelance writer and mom to three children.