Behind the wheel, in front of 60 kids

September 03, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Wanted: Adults to work with 60 noisy children in a 10-by-35-foot enclosed space for several hours a day. No experience necessary. Will train.

Intimidating job requirements? Not to the 12 candidates who stepped forward this summer in Harford County.

Their mission: to get behind the wheel of a 10-ton vehicle in all kinds of weather and transport children. In other words, they want to be school bus drivers.

"I'm going to enjoy it," said Linda Beall of Baldwin, one of the trainees. She's a licensed cosmetologist who decided to become a bus driver so that she could spend more time with her two children, ages 5 and 9. On a recent weekday, she was jubilant when she finally maneuvered the unwieldy school bus between orange traffic cones.

"Mirrors are our friends," reminded Linda Edwards, driver trainer for the county school system, as she supervised Mrs. Beall and two other trainees who were driving buses in a parking lot at Harford Community College.

Mrs. Edwards' job is to prepare the drivers for the demanding task of shuttling the county's 30,000 bus-riding students to and from school in 405 buses. She and two other trainers instruct the new drivers and provide continuing programs for the county's 484 current drivers.

"You're expected to get in a bus filled with kids, turn your back to them and perform a miracle," Mrs. Edwards said. "It's a very stressful job."

Mrs. Edwards brings firsthand experience to the job. She spent 12 years driving school buses before joining the county schools' transportation department in 1977.

Mrs. Edwards rattled off the training drill: eight hours of classroom training, 35 to 40 hours behind the wheel, defensive driving instruction and six hours of cardiopulmonary resuscitation training.

"I was shocked by everything you have to know," Mrs. Beall said.

Harford's safety record speaks for the intense training: There has not been a fatal school bus accident in the county in almost 15 years.

"We take school bus safety seriously," Mrs. Edwards said.

Between 40 and 45 children die each year in school bus accidents nationwide. About 75 percent of them are run over by their own buses. There were three school bus fatalities in Maryland last year, "but that was unusual," said Don LaFond, state chief of pupil transportation. "Since 1957, we have averaged less than one a year. But, obviously, one is too many."

One of the first orders of business for new drivers is watching a film called "Death Zones," a jarring re-creation of three actual school bus accidents in which two children died and another was permanently crippled. The title refers to the places

immediately around the bus where most accidents happen.

"I have never forgotten it," said Mrs. Edwards, who saw the film early in her career. "I show it not to have new drivers say, 'How horrible,' but so they can learn from it."

After watching the film, many prospective drivers wonder whether they have made the right decision, she said. "I tell them, 'Do you think we want drivers who don't care?' "

Trainee Mary "Muffie" Rohrs saw the film and said it didn't deter her.

At the practice session last week, the Fallston woman easily parallel parked a bright yellow school bus.

"When you have three kids and a Caravan, it's like driving a bus everyday," she said, laughing. The former government worker will be a substitute driver after she takes her commercial driver's license test at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration Sept. 14.

During the practice session, there were no distractions -- no children -- in the bus.

"A friend said I should make a tape of my children and put it in the back of the bus for practice," Mrs. Rohrs said. She said she was not expecting any problems. "I've heard horror stories," she said, "but Harford County school kids are good."

Well, not always.

Each bus driver becomes versed in an "assertive discipline plan," which includes such steps as having a conference with a misbehaving student and placing troublesome students in a "hot seat" near the driver. For the drivers, the final step is filling out a discipline form for school officials.

Motorists create other concerns for school bus drivers.

"If they would just be patient," Mrs. Edwards said. "One man called, upset that he got stopped behind a bus at 7:15 every morning. At least we know the bus was always on time. But I wonder if it occurred to him to leave a few minutes early."

"People don't appreciate bus driving as a profession," Mrs. Rohrs said. "I'm amazed at how much training we have to go through. We take CPR. We also wipe noses and clean up vomit."

SAFETY TIPS

* Don't cross the street behind the bus.

* Stay 10 steps or more in front of the bus so that you can see the driver's face.

* Stay far enough from the sides of the bus so that if you slip you won't fall under the wheels.

* If you drop something, never run back and pick it up.

* Don't try to get on or off the bus while it is moving.

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