Carroll County Public Schools focuses on safety with its bus driver training program.
Earlier this winter, a series of unrelated crashes involving Carroll County Public Schools buses was the cause of some alarm.
For school administrators it was a frustrating spout of bad press in the midst of a statewide shortage in qualified employees. Some drivers and bus contractors felt scapegoated by the public. Driver trainers worried that parents might not trust a mode of transport that is still statistically the safest way to get to and from school.
And by all patterns the school system has analyzed, officials say it seems to be an unfortunate coincidence.
The swirl of data and reactions stemmed from a string of five crashes involving CCPS buses in 11 school days across December 2019 and mid-January. On Dec. 20, there were two in one day, something that school transportation veteran Mike Hardesty said he’s never seen before.
“In 20 years, that’s never happened,” said Hardesty, director of the Transportation Services Department for CCPS.
The Transportation Services Department has been running through statistics since then, and has not found any patterns between the crashes. The fact that they occurred so close to each other is “a strange anomaly," Hardesty said.
The committee categorizes crashes by whether they were “major” and whether they were “preventable." This is separate from law enforcement investigations, which determine whether drivers were at fault and if it is appropriate to issue any citations.
Maryland Code defines a major crash as one with property damage of $3,000 or more and/or a personal injury, meaning someone required medical attention. The guidelines for what is “preventable” do not require law enforcement to find the bus driver at fault. The Accident Review Committee evaluates whether the driver did everything they could to foresee the crash and use defensive driving techniques to avoid it.
Despite how quickly the crashes occurred in relation to one another, the number of major, preventable crashes for the year is not out of the norm, CCPS data show. The average number of crashes deemed both “major” and “preventable” is usually eight to 10 per school year, Hardesty said.
The Accident Review Committee met on Feb. 4 and reviewed the most recent crashes. At roughly the halfway point of the school year, that number sits at five since July 1. Feb. 4 was the 95th school day out of 180, meaning the school year was 53% complete.
The first of those five crashes occurred in July, but the other four were during the time period from Dec. 20 to mid-January, Hardesty said in an email.
Over the course of the school year thus far, 37 accidents have been reviewed, and 24, or 65% were deemed preventable.
Another accident on Thursday, when a vehicle rear-ended a school bus in Mount Airy, resulted in no injuries, school officials said. The incident will be reviewed in the coming months.
John O’Neal, chief of operations for CCPS, said the standard is stringent and the committee does not tend to give the benefit of the doubt.
About two-thirds of accidents over the past nine years were deemed preventable, Hardesty said.
Some other school systems, even of similar population sizes to Carroll, might have fewer accidents deemed “preventable,” but O’Neal bristled at comparing CCPS to other systems. The state issues guidelines for counties’ accident review committees to judge whether an accident was preventable, but O’Neal said Carroll has very stringent standards.
In their daily routes to and from school, CCPS buses traveled 2,744,569 miles as of Jan. 31, Hardesty said. On average, that number reaches 5.3 million miles by the end of a school year. This number does not include athletics trips and school field trips.
He pointed out that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that school buses are about 70 times safer than passenger cars.
It’s frustrating for CCPS officials to see events and news coverage that might discourage more people from becoming school bus drivers in the midst of a statewide shortage in drivers. Carroll has felt the shortage less than other areas in the state, Hardesty said.
Going forward, CCPS will continue to emphasize crash prevention and defensive driving in the yearly in-service training for veteran drivers. “Obviously” the recent crashes will be a focus, Hardesty said. But this has been a consist message every year, he added.
Hardesty said the school system’s 42 contractors and their bus drivers have a good safety record over time and provide quality service to CCPS.
“They were as disturbed as I was over the spate of accidents,” he said.
The love of the job
Driver and contractor Earl Haines said he’ll never forget when, during his own training 20 years ago, his instructor told him she’d rather drive a school bus than a car on the road.
“I thought that was crazy, but now I kind of understand,” he said.
The most difficult part of driving is actually the other people on the road, especially any who are distracted — like with their phones. Driving the bus itself can be “fairly easy” because the height and the mirrors give drivers good visibility, he said.
“Just give us some room, you know,” he said.
A driver since 1999, Haines has owned his own bus since 2000. “I love driving a school bus,” he said with certainty. In that time, he has never had an accident, save for one time when he was driving as a substitute for another contractor and a truck backed into him. The review board found that he could not have prevented it.
When Haines talks about the field, he wants to keep the conversation positive. Of the crashes, he said, “It’s just a run of bad luck, I guess."
There hasn’t been a year like this, he said.
In fact, the crashes occurred just weeks after an annual benchmark reported that preventable accidents involving Carroll buses had gone down 22% from fiscal year 2018 to fiscal year 2019.
He agreed that the standard for “preventable” accidents and what must be reported in Carroll County is strict, he said.
“It’s very high,” he said. “Even if you would hit a tree branch and put a little mark on the bus, you would have to call in.”
If one bus were to tap another bus in a school parking lot, that is recorded as two bus crashes, Haines said.
The consequence for not reporting a crash, even minor, is de-certification.
On a weekday morning in early February, Javasca Morris of Westminster was undertaking his very first day of behind-the-wheel bus training. At the end of the session, he successfully navigated the “serpentine,” weaving the bus backwards through a series of grass islands at the training course next to Friendship Valley Elementary School.
Carroll County is one of several counties in the state authorized to train and test potential new drivers. CCPS employs three in-house driver trainers.
The longest part of the morning’s training was when driver instructor Chasity Foerster walked through the pretrip inspection of the bus with Morris. Potential drivers must perfectly recall the steps to check the interior, engine and undercarriage of the bus in order to pass the test.
Drivers check buses before and after every bus run in the morning and afternoon, lead driver instructor Angela Williams said. If even one thing is wrong during the precheck, the bus cannot go out on the road, in which case drivers should notify their contractors and call for a spare bus.
It takes a lot of dedication to perfectly recount the precheck, but that’s the idea, Foerster said. The system wants dedicated drivers.
Before reaching behind-the-wheel training, potential drivers undergo 15 hours of classroom training. It includes information about driving the bus itself, as well as “mobile classroom management,” or skills for interacting with the students who ride the bus.
Often a bus driver is a student’s first contact with the school system each morning and the last at the end of the day, Williams said. Recognizing students by name and greeting them is important, she said.
Williams said people can be dismissive of someone they see as “just a bus driver,” but those people don’t know how intensive the training is. Drivers’ backgrounds range from current parents of CCPS students to retired lawyers and engineers.