HCCSC transportation director, bus drivers taking proactive measures on bus safety

Bus driver Mandy Beaty, with fellow bus driver Bill Oswalt peering in the rearview mirror, uses a carton of eggs to show Northwest Elementary School students how they’ll be jostled around if they don’t stay in their seats on the bus. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Oct. 24, 2013.

Twice a day, some 4,800 Huntington County kids pass through the danger zone.

And until this week, many of them had no idea there was such a thing.

Brendan Caffee, a third-grader at Northwest Elementary School, is now well versed in the danger zone.

"It's a place you should never go on because you might be run over," Caffee explains after he and his classmates completed a run-through of school bus safety procedures on Monday, Oct. 21, in the school parking lot. It was the first he'd heard of the danger zone, he said.

The danger zone - for those not in the know - extends 10 feet from all sides of a school bus. With chalk lines, orange traffic cones and dropped jackets and cell phones, bus drivers drilled the students over and over - never walk in the danger zone; if you drop something in the danger zone, don't stop to pick it up. Ask the bus driver to get it for you.

Why? Because if you're inside the danger zone, the bus driver can't see you.

The program, put together by a committee of bus drivers, is being repeated at each of the Huntington County Community Schools' seven elementary schools this week, says Vanessa Fields, the corporation's director of transportation.

There have been no recent bus stop or on-bus injuries in Huntington County to prompt the sessions, she says, but it's been seven years since the last push for school bus safety - and she just thought it was time.

"Safety is something I feel strongly about," says Fields, who is in her first year as transportation director for the schools.

She asked bus drivers to serve on a safety committee, and those drivers planned and are presenting this week's safety program.

"The kids know the drivers, and they're going to be the ones speaking," Fields said prior to the presentation.
One of the goals is to just familiarize the students with the workings of a school bus.

"Some of them have never seen the side or back of the bus," Fields says.

Keeping the students safe at the bus stops is a priority, says bus driver Mandy Beaty. That's difficult to do at times, she says, especially with other drivers ignoring the buses' extended "stop" arms with regularity.

"Cars run the stop arm daily," Beaty says. It happened so often on one particular street, she says, that she was forced to alter her route to avoid that street.

"It happens in the county, but primarily in town," Fields says.

That's why the kids are taught to wait outside the danger zone until the bus has come to a complete stop, the stop arm is extended and the driver motions them to board the bus.

But the students must also be aware of the traffic around them, the drivers say.

"You want the kids also to look, not just the bus driver," says driver Bill Oswalt.

To board the bus, the students learned, they must stay on the outside of the danger zone.

The students at Northwest apparently learned that lesson well.

"I learned that you're supposed to be standing 10 feet away," says third-grader Faith Hewson.

"You have to ask the bus driver to get your stuff from the danger zone," adds classmate Corgan Burnsworth.

Once inside the bus, the students need to find a seat and stay in it, the bus drivers told them.

Oswalt cites active students as one of the main distractions to the driver and a danger to the students.

"Standing up in a bus and moving from seat to seat," he says of the problems he's experienced with kids on the bus. "The little kids screaming, they're so excited in the morning to get to school."

Beaty, using plastic eggs in an egg carton, demonstrated just what happens when a bus hits a bump and the students aren't planted in their seats.

The kindergartners and first-graders are most likely to get up out of their seats, driver Monica Haneline says. They haven't gotten used to the transition from a vehicle with seat belts to an unbelted school bus seat, driver Holly Landrum adds.

"The new buses have higher seats, and they have to stand up to see what's going on in the seat behind them," Oswalt says.

The girls are more likely to chit-chat, while the boys tend toward "horsing around and wrestling," Landrum says.
Drivers instruct their students to "sit on their pockets" - language that's universal from school to school, Fields says.

"We're trying to create something universal that the kids can understand," Beaty says.

With 64 buses on the road in Huntington County every school day, Fields says the task of teaching students to stay safe won't be taken care of in just one session.

She plans to stage another workshop in the spring to emphasize additional safety procedures, including leaving from the back of the bus in an emergency situation.

Complete caption: Bus driver Mandy Beaty, with fellow bus driver Bill Oswalt peering in the rearview mirror, uses a carton of eggs to show Northwest Elementary School students how they’ll be jostled around if they don’t stay in their seats on the bus. Oswalt and Beaty were two of the bus drivers who helped present a hands-on bus safety training session at Northwest on Monday, Oct. 21. The session is being repeated at all Huntington County Community Schools elementary buildings this week.