LINDSBORG — You don’t want to mess with school buses or Kansas Highway Patrol troopers if you’re an adult. And you don’t want to mess with school bus drivers if you’re a kid.
A crowd of people who are serious about school bus safety gathered in the early morning last week at the bus barn behind Smoky Valley High School: bus drivers, other people at the bus barn, the school superintendent and Kansas Highway Patrol troopers.
Troopers, partnering with the Kansas Department of Education, inspect every public school bus in the state each year before drivers head off to pick up children for the first day of school. Across the state, that’s 11,000 buses and school vehicles.
Thursday was Smoky Valley’s turn.
Two troopers, one in front and one in back, watch as lights flash and beam, horns honk and stop signs swing out from the side. The bar that swings out from the front of the bumper keeps children from walking directly in front of the bus.
“The scariest thing is kids walk in front of the bus and you can’t see them,” said LaVonna Shafer, Smoky Valley bus driver since 1996.
Signs are inspected to make sure the paint hasn’t faded and they can be read by motorists.
Does the wheelchair lift work? It might not be used every year, but when it’s needed, it has to operate.
How about the handrail on the steps of the bus? It can’t be too close to the wall or it might catch on a child’s backpack. And the doors should open in the middle — a single door could catch a backpack and drag a child if the bus moves.
While it’s tempting to put hooks on the walls of the bus to hold sports equipment or packs, don’t. In the event of a sudden stop or crash, it could be dangerous, said Ben Gardner, KHP trooper.
Lots of details
By the time the troopers arrived Thursday, the buses already had been through a mechanical pre-inspection. When troopers left, each of the 22 buses and 16 vans and Suburbans had a reddish- brown sticker in the lower left corner of the windshield.
The big yellow buses don’t have seat belts.
“First of all, there’s the size of the bus,” Gardner said. “The size alone is a benefit.”
The bright yellow color, the high seat backs, the drivers, a lot of things make buses safe, he said.
And in addition to the cost of seat belts, someone would have to make sure the kids were properly buckled in, he said, or unbuckled in the unlikely event of a crash.
“Drivers should drive,” Gardner said.
All the drivers have to take a defensive driving course, learn CPR and first aid, hold a commercial driver’s license and undergo a Kansas Department of Transportation physical. They attend a safety meeting every month.
“There’s a lot to it,” Shafer said, noting two evacuation drills also are conducted each year.
And there’s a lot of paperwork. A large route in Smoky Valley will generate about an inch-deep pile of reports a year, said Tom Buffington, transportation supervisor.
Besides mileage and times, drivers have checklists for pre-trip and post-trip inspections. They keep track of who gets on and who doesn’t.
Parents are encouraged to call the school early if their child will not be on the bus, and drivers can be contacted by radio whenever necessary.
Stop or get cited
The district covers a big area, Buffington said: north to Smolan, east to Roxbury, west to Kanopolis and south to Marquette. Drivers also take special education students to McPherson and vo-tech students to Salina Area Technical College in Salina. The district logged 332,913 miles last year.
The thing that troopers and bus drivers seemed to dislike most is people who drive past when the stop sign is extended on the side of the bus.
When the sign is out, motorists must stop, no exceptions.
“We have a zero tolerance policy,” trooper C.E. Rust said. “If someone passes a bus with the sign out, we write a ticket — no warning — and it’s a very expensive ticket.”
The fine is $300.
And you really don’t want to be caught not paying attention because you’re on your cellphone, Rust said.
After school starts, troopers will follow school buses at random to make sure motorists stop, Rust said. He encouraged the bus drivers at Smoky Valley to call the KHP if they have problems.
Tina Peterson, who’s been driving a bus for Smoky Valley for 17 years, said she has had “regulars” who pass her stopped bus about every other day at the same place.
She said she warns motorists well in advance when she’s planning to stop.
“When I put on my yellow flashers, I’m looking backward and forward to check,” she said. “You look for potential problems ahead of time.”
Peterson knows where problems might lie because she lives in the area of her route.
Drivers are boss
Whenever possible, drivers are assigned to a route where they live, partly because they know everyone already, she said.
That came in handy several years ago when a couple of brothers on Peterson’s bus started acting up.
They weren’t bad, she said, just ornery.
Finally, she said, she told them to behave or she would call her husband on the radio, who would then walk across the road and talk to the boys’ folks, which then meant the boys would be in trouble before they even got home.
She said she didn’t have any more problems with the boys.
It amuses her that one of those boys now is a state trooper.
She’s not claiming he became a trooper because of her, but still, you don’t want to mess with bus drivers if you’re a kid.