Making sure roads are safe for buses is a trying task

February 14, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

In the darkest hours before dawn, Gary Ritz carefully maneuvers his Chevy Lumina up, down and around the ice-covered hills and curves in rural Harford County, checking road conditions.

He watches for black ice -- a deceptive, slippery glaze -- and listens for the clack-clack-clack of the car's anti-lock brakes as he hits a slick spot.

"This is where it gets scary," he says, as the Chevy jerks forward on a narrow road. "Imagine you're driving a 10-ton vehicle with 50 kids behind you."

In other words, a school bus.

Mr. Ritz is one of five Harford school transportation employees who drives through snow, sleet -- you name it -- to test the roads before the county's 386 buses make their 1,400 daily runs.

This winter, the lonely 4:30 a.m. drives in freezing temperatures have become a familiar routine, as the road scouts -- Mr. Ritz, supervisor Paul Welch, Merv Mawhinney, Norman Seidel and Ed Beck -- confer on whether to recommend to county school Superintendent Ray R. Keech that the schools should be opened, closed or delayed.

On a recent, 16-degree, don't-you-wish-you-were-still-in-bed morning, Mr. Ritz's squawking two-way radio pierces the eerie stillness

"Be prepared to report at 5:05," T5 instructs.

Mr. Welch's code name is T5.

Mr. Ritz, or T2, pulls into a church parking lot on Sharon Road near Rocks State Park to respond and listen to the others' reports.

"Edgewood is one big ice rink . . . I thought I was in the Baltimore Arena . . . Traction is poor on secondary roads . . . Box Hill North is ice-impacted."

Another consultation is due at 5:30 a.m.

Mr. Ritz continues his route, visiting isolated North Harford schools, whose beautiful, shimmering coatings of ice indicate treacherous parking lots and sidewalks.

"We have to think of walkers, too," Mr. Ritz says, "and where students will wait for buses on snow-banked roads."

On this particular morning, a farmhouse on Deer Creek Church Road has a huge, blinking red heart framing it. It's a cheerful interlude during the serious business.

Mr. Ritz also talks about seeing herds of deer out and about on the roads he patrols. And, who can forget the driver who was stuck in the snow one morning and was quite content to remain there with his six-pack of beer?

Soon it is time for the second report. The consensus: Roads are not safe for school bus travel.

At that point, Mr. Welch relays the recommendation to Dr. Keech at his home.

"He makes the final decision," Mr. Welch says.

The verdict: Schools will be closed this day.

"All units bring it in," T5 says.

The men return to the Hickory annex, where their office is located, to compare notes, write their reports and continue such other duties as supervising bus drivers and routing buses. They still have an eight-hour day ahead of them, but the pressure is off for a while as they munch doughnuts and talk about falling asleep the night before during "Home Improvement" or as early as 7 p.m.

They usually arise at 3:45 a.m. on bad-weather days, which have been more frequent this year than they would like.

"This is one of the worst winters," Mr. Ritz says.

As of Friday, Harford County schools had been shut down 12 days because of weather, the most since 1983, when schools had 10 weather-related closings. The schools also have opened two hours late on seven days and closed two hours early once.

"That's where we have a lot of difficulty," Mr. Welch says. He keeps in touch with the National Weather Service, state police and other counties to try to track storms.

"But if there's any question [about the weather], we close," he says.

The school transportation department often takes heat from parents regardless of the decision. Already that morning, Linda Edwards, a bus driver trainer who was operating the phones, had received some calls.

"I have bridge club today. I need these kids to go to school."

"I have five kids. What are you going to do about it?"

Even when schools are in session, the department gets some negative responses.

"How could you open schools? My road is terrible. I'm not sending my child to school."

"Safety is paramount," Mr. Welch says. "[Dr. Keech's] philosophy, and mine, is, 'Don't sacrifice the kids, ever.' "

Mr. Ritz, the father of two school-age children, also has a reassuring response to parents.

"If I can put my kids on the bus, I would put your kids on the bus."

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