Driver Training

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Driver training, regular maintenance help district provide safe transportation

By Rita Howell

Every day, 3,500 students in the South Panola School District ride to school aboard a yellow bus. It’s the job of Robert Chapman, the district’s transportation director, to make sure they arrive safely.

It’s a job he takes seriously.

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“Seventeen years ago, when I took this job, they were averaging one accident per week,” Chapman remembered in an interview last week. “There are 36 weeks in the school year, and there were 34 accidents that year that were our fault.”

Last year, the district recorded only two accidents where the bus driver was at fault, and those were minor, he said.

The reason for the reduction in accidents?

“I attribute it to having better drivers,” Chapman said.

Each driver for the 66-bus fleet has passed four exams to obtain a commercial driver’s license. And every other year, each driver takes a “refresher” course.

Issuing practical guidelines, like prohibiting drop-offs along busy Highway 51 inside the city limits, has helped cut down on accidents, Chapman said.

Seating charts for every bus help the drivers to maintain order, he said. Also, drivers are required, once the bus is parked, to walk through and place an “empty” sign at the back, to make sure everyone got off.

Another factor in the district’s safety record might be the installation of strobe lights atop every district bus.

“Fifteen years ago, the new buses came equipped with strobe lights,” Chapman said. He said he immediately recognized the heightened visibility produced by the flashing light, and requested that all the district’s buses be retrofitted with the lights.

South Panola buses are all fueled at a central location, the school bus maintenance shop located on Eureka Road. Every time a bus is fueled, its fluids, tires and front end are checked. This helps the bus shop to stay on top of mechanical problems, he said. A two-man team operates the fuel station, with one pumping the diesel as the other does the maintenance checks. They pump 800 gallons of fuel per day to keep the buses rolling over 4,000 miles each day.

“A lot of districts don’t have their own fueling stations,” Chapman noted.

In addition, each bus undergoes a quarterly inspection, when problems can be detected before they cause an accident.

Chapman noted that mechanics were able to discover a broken chassis frame during one of these inspections, repairing the problem and possibly preventing an accident.

All the district buses are now equipped with automatic transmission, a fact that Chapman says has helped reduce accidents.

This week is National School Bus Safety Week, and Chapman notes that school buses are statistically the safest way for children to get to school.

Among the 25 million students who attend school every day in the U.S., about 800 accidents with fatalities are reported, according to the National Academy of Sciences and the School Bus Information Council. Of those accidents, 448 involved students killed in vehicles driven by teens. Another 169 deaths were reported from accidents involving vehicles driven by adults. Students walking back and forth to school were involved in 131 fatal accidents, and 15 others at unsupervised bus stops. Only five students died in accidents involving school buses.

Working with Chapman in the transportation department are: Scootie Murphree, foreman; mechanics Raphael Bledsoe, Emmitt Sheegog, Patrick Sykes, James Williams and George Young; mechanic’s helper Ernest Ales; department secretary Rosa Pettit.