School bus drivers across the nation have made headlines recently for all the wrong reasons, including spectacular crashes and charges of drunken driving and theft of the iconic yellow vehicle.
While the vast majority of bus drivers get their students to and from school each day with no problems, safety advocates say the rash of incidents, with reports of some operators acting less like responsible public servants and more like irresponsible Otto from "The Simpsons," is troubling.
"The real problem comes down to economics. We pay these people barely above the minimum wage in some states. You sometimes get what you pay for," said Alan Ross, president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety.
Over the past two months, accusations of booze and cigarettes have brought trouble to some drivers. In Sumter, S.C., police say Lauritha McGhaney crashed her school bus into another vehicle, injuring its two occupants, while reaching for a lit cigarette she had dropped onto the floor. No students were on board at the time, but Ms. McGhaney has been charged with reckless driving, driving without a seat belt and smoking on a school bus, the Associated Press reported.
Miguel Rivera, a 49-year-old bus driver from Washington, Pa., has been accused of driving 142 students on a field trip while drunk. After being charged with driving under the influence, Mr. Rivera was stopped 17 hours later while driving drunk in his own vehicle, authorities say. In Grand Junction, Colo., a student texted his mother to say his bus driver smelled of alcohol. The driver, Gary Williams, 54, was later charged with impaired driving.
Shortly after being fired for refusing to adjust his morning route, Farmington, N.H., bus driver Scott Leathe, 52, drove the vehicle home and wouldn't give it back, police said. He was later charged with receiving stolen property but now wants his job back, claiming he was "wrongfully terminated," the Union Leader reported.
Industry leaders concede that the number of highly publicized negative incidents is alarming, but say they are the exceptions, not the rule.
"I see something every week or so. Sometimes they seem to happen two or three in a row and it looks really bad," said Bob Riley, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. "But the reality is that the school bus is the safest way for children to get to and from school. When you have about 500,000 drivers, you're going to have a problem every now and then. And that's what we've seen."
The problems extend beyond alcohol and cigarettes; the health of drivers and the safety of the buses also have been questioned. In a Phoenix suburb Monday, five people, including three students, were injured after the brakes of a school bus apparently failed before it rammed into two vehicles in front of it.
Last week, a 13-year-old student in Milton, Wash., safely took over control of his school bus after the driver suffered an apparent heart attack and later died.
Despite those and other events, Mr. Riley said, school bus safety standards — both for the physical conditions of drivers and the mechanics of the vehicles — remain as high as ever. No state or district, he said, has weakened its rules, even as budget cuts have left most school administrators with less money to spend on student transportation.
The quality of bus drivers has actually increased in recent years, Mr. Riley said.
"With the economy the way it is, we have more access to quality employees than we do under a thriving economy. Now, if people have a job, they don't leave," he said.
Mr. Riley also pointed to statistics showing safety records of school bus drivers. From 2000 to March 2011, only 0.34 percent of all fatal motor vehicle crashes involved school buses or vans, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an arm of the federal Transportation Department.
Even if a bus is involved in an accident, its occupants are less likely to be injured, NHTSA figures show.
Since 2000, a total of 1,386 people have died in school transportation crashes. Of those, 8 percent were school bus occupants. About 20 percent were pedestrians or bicyclists, and the vast majority — about 72 percent — were occupants in another vehicle involved in the crash.
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