Ron Byington, transportation supervisor for Weakley County Schools, wants to assure residents reading the Monday morning news of a tragic bus wreck in Arkansas that “our school bus drivers are literally the safest drivers out there on the roads today.”
The Associated Press reported Monday that a charter bus carrying a youth football team from Memphis crashed early Monday in central Arkansas, killing one child and injuring at least 45 other people.
Arkansas State Police said the bus overturned along Interstate 30 near Benton, about 25 miles southwest of Little Rock, while traveling from Texas to Memphis. Police said most of the injured were children who were taken to hospitals in Little Rock and Benton.
The football team was from the Orange Mound Youth Association in Tennessee and had played in a tournament in Dallas over the weekend, according to Memphis TV station WMC. The TV station reports the children are elementary-school age.
“A tragedy of this magnitude is heartbreaking,” said Weakley County Schools Director Randy Frazier. “And we have the deepest sympathy for the families of those injured and especially those dealing with the loss of a child. We want to assure our parents and caretakers in Weakley County that protecting your children is our priority, and we continue to go beyond what is mandated to provide safe transportation to school and events.”
The county has 41 full-time routes with drivers in all those routes transporting nearly 2,100 students. The work schedule of the drivers is usually about three hours a day with most routes a little over an hour, said Byington. As part-time employees, drivers are paid a day rate of between $56 and $61.
“They are not here for the pay,” noted Byington. “They are here because they enjoy what they do.”
Byington illustrates the drivers’ commitment by pointing out that two drivers have over 35 years in their roles and two just retired after 33 years.
“They are some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet in your life. The kids have known them all their lives and they know if they do something wrong the driver is going to be disappointed in them.”
The drivers are also some of the most trained. Byington says that to become a driver, applicants must complete a Department of Transportation medical certification with a local physician and a series of written tests before a commercial learners permit can be issued. In 14 days, they can then schedule a skills test by a licensed examiner which Weakley County provides. This examination includes three steps: a pre-trip test to ensure the driver knows all the working parts on the vehicle, how it operates and what to inspect; a backing exercise of state-mandated maneuvers; and on-the-road driving.
Successful completion of those steps results in a background check and then completion of a school bus driver state-mandated training program that encompasses how to pick up and drop off students and how to operate in different traffic situations. Drivers receive a commercial driver’s license with school bus (S) and passenger (P) endorsements.
Drivers must maintain medical certification and are responsible for renewing their license. Byington also receives a motor vehicle report on every driver every year. Ongoing safety classes are spread out through the year.
The one-to-three-month process as well as his prior background as a diesel technician allow Byington to attest, “I have all the faith in the world in my drivers and their ability to handle this equipment. We have the safest mode of transportation for school-aged children.”
As for field trips and athletic events like the Arkansas example, drivers are asked if they are interested in additional activities and whether they prefer day or night. Byington then works to make sure everyone has an opportunity.
Discipline on the bus is addressed at the beginning of each year. Students are made aware of the three-phase disciplinary system: first a warning, then if the negative behavior continues a shift in seating to the front and a conversation with the driver, and finally a written report.
“And absolutely no fighting,” Byington adds. “The students know we are going to skip one and two [for fighting]. We are not going to warn you or put you on the front seat, we will write you up.”
Frazier points out that to ensure safety on the roads, all drivers should obey traffic laws when encountering buses to remain stopped as long as the bus lights are flashing or the stop arm is out. This is also required for traffic traveling in the opposite direction unless the road is divided by a median.
For more #localnews see the latest edition of the Weakley County Press.