Students On Board

January 30, 1995|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

Nothing dents this driver's poise, not even careless motorists who pass when they shouldn't and endanger her priceless cargo.

Pat Holbrook's vehicle is a 10-ton school bus carrying 40 children, and the 49-year-old grandmother sometimes wishes it were a police cruiser so she could give chase.

On Wednesday morning, a small red sports car darted past as she stopped to pick up students along York Road in northern Baltimore County. "He didn't even slow," said a disgusted Mrs. Holbrook who, for the 13th time in January, took the tag number of a lawbreaking driver.

For 15 years, she has worked in the school system's Hereford zone, a rural area where the rolling hills, narrow roads and hairpin turns are a constant test for bus drivers, especially in winter.

Her safety record is unsurpassed there and one of the best in Baltimore County, which last year gave her an award for 24 years of accident-free operation.

"Pat is one of our safest, safest drivers," said Rita Fromm, manager of transportation for the county public schools.

Though the state does not rate drivers on safety, Mrs. Holbrook obviously has a distinguished record, said Larry Chamblin, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education. "With that kind of record, she certainly is one of the state's outstanding drivers."

The boundaries of the Hereford zone are Pennsylvania to the north, Harford County to the east, Carroll County to the west and the Hunt Valley area to the south.

Mrs. Holbrook's route takes her along the western edge of the district, through thinly populated hamlets beside Prettyboy Reservoir and down woodsy lanes with names such as Spook Hill Road and Grave Run Road. Children who live here are transported to Prettyboy Elementary, Hereford Middle and Hereford High schools.

Because of road conditions in the district, school officials take no chances in winter. Hereford schools sometimes shut down when others in the county remain open.

Though Mrs. Holbrook's 35-foot-long bus has power steering and brakes and an automatic transmission, it still is a behemoth to handle and rattles like a stagecoach over the patched and pitted roads that make up much of her route.

For driving 110 children to school and back each day -- nearly 15,000 miles per school year -- she is paid $12.79 an hour by the county.

Born and reared in Essex, Mrs. Holbrook said that as a teen-age driver her first automobile was a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. "It was green, with automatic transmission," she said dreamily. "Nice car."

Mrs. Holbrook later graduated to a school bus after a casual remark by her husband, Rubin. "I was talking about getting a job as we drove past a school," she recalled. "He pointed to the buses and said, 'Why don't you drive one of those? '"

Rubin Holbrook was kidding; his wife took the remark seriously. She started in Essex, then transferred to Hereford after they built a home in the area.

"Each bus driver can tell you her 'ick' roads, ones that are more dangerous than others," said Mrs. Holbrook, naming three: a hairpin turn on Armacost Road so severe that she never approaches it without honking; a steep downhill run on Dairy Road, where gnarly tree roots jut over the macadam; and a metal bridge, often surrounded by ice, at the bottom of Valley Mill Road.

"You learn all the bad places, and where every little bump is," she said. "When the roads are bad, it's not my driving that scares me. It's the other driver."

On an undivided roadway, autos must stop at least 20 feet from the front or rear of a school bus that is loading or unloading and has its red lights flashing. On a divided roadway, vehicles traveling in the same direction as the bus must stop.

Some motorists don't care about safety and others aren't paying attention, Mrs. Holbrook said. "I know of buses that were passed [from behind] on the right side, while discharging children," she said.

During the 1993-1994 school year in Maryland, 81 pupils were injured, nine seriously, when struck by vehicles while getting on or off a bus, says the state Department of Education.

In the first four months of this school year, 1,107 motorists received written warnings for passing Baltimore County school buses that were discharging passengers. "And that's only the cars whose tags [bus drivers] could get," said Ms. Fromm, the transportation manager. "There are probably four times that many violations overall."

Such motorists can be prosecuted if the bus driver gets a close look at the person behind the wheel. Mrs. Holbrook is pressing charges against a motorist who passed her in a loading zone recently.

"As he went by, he looked up at me and grinned," she said. "I got mad."

The penalty for passing a school bus in a loading zone is a $260 fine and two points.

Mrs. Holbrook also is firm with her passengers. Like a teacher, she must keep order in her "classroom."

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