Erich Bridges: Say a prayer for school bus drivers

My heart aches for the six young lives lost in the crash of school bus No. 366 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

I think about their families, now facing Christmas without beloved children. I think about the kids on the bus who survived. Some of them suffered critical injuries; all of them experienced the horror of seeing friends die.

And I think about the tens of thousands of school bus drivers across the United States. Their noble—and challenging—calling has been overshadowed by the actions of 24-year-old driver Johnthony Walker.

Walker is charged with multiple counts of vehicular homicide for recklessly speeding and losing control of his bus, causing one of the deadliest school bus accidents in recent years. He reportedly had engaged in other instances of erratic driving in the months leading up to the Nov. 21 crash.

About 480,000 school buses deliver 25 million children—more than half of all U.S. primary and secondary students—to and from schools each day, according to the American School Bus Council.

Almost every school bus journey occurs safely. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that students are nearly eight times safer riding in a school bus than with their own parents.

But safe doesn't make news.

The Chattanooga tragedy hit home with me, because I'm a rookie school bus driver. I started driving elementary, middle and high school students in September for my county school system. I'm one of about 600 county drivers who carry some 50,000 students to school each day. It's the ideal job for a semi-retired writer: I have time between my morning and afternoon bus runs to work on articles and other projects.

Like many people, I took school bus drivers for granted before becoming one. Not anymore.

Driving a school bus is no job for wimps. I didn't even think I would make it through new driver training, which my county school transportation office takes very seriously. Our trainers put us through weeks of intensive study, testing and road work behind the wheel. I haven't been yelled at so much since Dad taught me to drive his old Chevy back in the day.

Fail the final road test twice and you're out. Somehow, I passed.

But that was only the beginning. When I finally got behind the wheel with children on board, a veteran driver rode with me for a week. He kept one sharp eye on me and the other on the kids.

"What you learned in training is OK," he told me. "But this is the real world."

He was right. Here are a few daily priorities for real-world school bus drivers:

• You check out your bus every morning, often in pre-dawn darkness, to make sure it's ready to operate safely.

• You smile and say good morning to the children boarding your bus, whether they smile back or not. You're the first school-related adult they see in the morning and the last they see at the end of the day. You might be the only one who smiles at them or speaks directly to them.

• You focus on cautious driving, above all, and getting "your" kids to school and back home—safe, sound and (usually) on time. That means paying close attention not only to your own actions but to the distracted motorists running your flashing red lights and doing other stupid things. There is nothing more important—nothing—than protecting the children in your temporary care.

• You try to build relationships with kids on the bus. When it comes to student behavior, relationships usually work better than legalistically enforcing the rules. You have to be in charge, but you don't have to be a tyrant. Yep, I've already failed a few times in that department.

"You're a social worker. You're a parent. You're a friend. You're a coach," says Greg, my favorite bus trainer, a no-nonsense New Yorker who told us some hair-raising stories about driving the toughest bus routes in the county.

Greg has been cursed out, even physically threatened, by rowdy students. You can't take it personally, he says. Some kids have no real parenting, no social skills, no understanding of how to treat others. Treat them the way you want to be treated anyway, Greg recommends. The Golden Rule is powerful. Don't just "steer the bus." Tell dumb jokes. Laugh at their dumb jokes.

Ask kids about their day. Listen. You might be surprised what they tell you.

I drive three bus routes a day, sometimes four. That's a lot of opportunities to influence "my" 100-plus kids, ranging from kindergarteners to high school seniors. Most days I love it, so far. I pray that I don't waste the chance to encourage so many young lives.

Pray for me. Pray for the school bus drivers in your area.

We need it.

Erich Bridges is a writer based in Richmond, Va., with 30-plus years in Baptist journalism.

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