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School bus fleet is among the elite

November 01, 2000

School bus fleet is among the elite



By TARA REILLY / Staff Writer


Traveling millions of miles a year is hard enough. Add thousands of kids a day to the mix and the job gets harder.

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According to national trade magazine School Bus Fleet, however, the Washington County Board of Education's Transportation Department is doing something right.

The publication last month named the department one of the "Great Fleets Across America" out of 50 in the nation.

"It was a nice surprise for us," said Chris Carter, the board's director of transportation.

The magazine each year recognizes one school transportation department from each state based on commitment to safety, efficiency, innovation, pride and morale.

"We found that the best operations put people first, both employees and customers," according to a statement from the magazine. "They understand that a school bus driver's smile may be the first positive overture that a child receives in the morning."

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The award winner was chosen weeks before a Sept. 25 bus accident on Md. 77 near Smithsburg that sent 39 students to the hospital with minor injuries, said Senior Editor Sandra Matke.

"There are accidents. That happens. Sometimes there's an accident that's a freak occurrence," she said.

The county's safety record is otherwise good and the magazine is not considering taking away the award, she said.

If the Smithsburg accident had happened before the awards were chosen, the magazine would have checked into whether it suggested a pattern of problems, she said.

Maryland State Police said the wet road caused the bus driver to lose control and sideswipe a dump truck on a sharp downhill curve. The bus driver was found at fault but was not charged.

With about 330 county and contracted bus drivers, the fleet of 177 buses travels about 2.5 million miles a year and carries about 15,000 students a day, Carter said.

He said the school system puts all of its drivers through rigorous training. Job candidates go through 20 hours of classroom instruction to prepare for a commercial learners permit.

Once they receive permits, the candidates head back to the school system for behind-the-wheel training, where they perform different maneuvers with the bus.

After the basics are complete, candidates practice driving on the road before they schedule their driving tests with the state.

The process takes about four to six weeks, Carter said.

Facing a national shortage of bus drivers, Carter said the school system has put 74 drivers through the program in the last two years.

"We're continually searching and continually training the drivers," he said. "It's a job where people seem to come and go fairly frequently. We're always looking for new drivers."

The department has established a unified school bus discipline program for students and has recently restructured its accident review policy.

After a crash a driver must go through post-accident training, and if the accident was preventable, the driver will be retrained.

Board President Paul Bailey called the award "a high honor."

"Any time you're judged by your peers, that's an outstanding recommendation. With that number of miles and that number of buses and that number of drivers, it speaks well for the training of the drivers. We as a board had no idea it was coming from a trade magazine."

- Staff writer Laura Ernde contributed to this story.

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