After I lost my job driving a truck in the Great Recession of 2009, the only position I could find was driving a school bus in eastern Nassau County. I was approaching my mid-50s and my arthritis was becoming an issue, and driving a bus wouldn’t pay as much, but as a retired police detective, I had my NYPD pension to fall back on.
Before I could drive a bus, I went through three days of required safety and technical training. What I wasn’t prepared for was the utter contempt regular drivers have toward the people who transport our precious bundles of joy to school each day.
Some people get annoyed by the habit of bus drivers to make full stops at stop signs, but the fact that buses travel at the speed limit really seems to send them over the edge. They honk and gesture and yell obscenities.
To the patience-challenged among you, let me explain that each bus is tracked by a GPS device. Every time a bus exceeds the speed limit, the dispatcher gets a computer notification identifying the lead-foot and his or her speed. One bus driver was reprimanded for doing 44 in a 40 mph zone.
A more important reason that we don’t do 50 in a 40 zone — unlike most Long Island drivers — is, well, that we are driving vehicles full of schoolkids.
Another source of tension is that school districts mandate procedures for picking up and dropping off students. Many motorists and parents don’t know it, but kindergartners and first-graders must have a parent or guardian present at the bus stop for afternoon drop-off. So even if a mom waves from her front door 300 feet away, the bus cannot move — and neither can the traffic stopped on either side of the bus’ flashing red stop signs. With the diplomacy of saints, bus drivers must insist that parents come to the stop, even though some don’t understand why their 5-year-olds — some of whom don’t yet know the difference between a square and a rectangle — shouldn’t be allowed to cross the street alone in front of other drivers who ignore traffic laws.
Now juxtapose that with occasional chaos inside the bus. The kids generally behave, though that can depend on the driver’s people skills. A good driver has to be adept at both crowd control and personal confrontation, just like being a cop. It’s best to start with a firm tone and then soften as the year progresses. A driver can’t be afraid to pull over and get out of his or her seat to explain that kids can’t stand for the ride or be loud and obnoxious. There’s nothing like a little face-to-face negotiation to get a point across.
Despite what one might think, high school students are easy. As passengers, they are almost comatose, like zombies plugged into their phones. They speak only in grunts and groans. It’s the middle school students who make us reach for an antacid. It’s usually the boys who can’t control their young energy. They play keep-away with someone’s hat, wrestle with each other or grab someone’s phone.
Sometimes I wonder why anyone would take this job. It provides a paycheck only nine months a year, and the job description includes coping with inclement weather, road rage, teen angst, juvenile delinquency, projectile vomiting, and surprise route inspections from supervisors.
Those are the driver’s headaches, of course, but I have a message for reckless drivers who think it’s OK to tailgate, cut off a bus or take risks around a vehicle carrying as many as 66 children. After 20 years on the NYPD and seven driving school buses, I’ve learned that a billion sorries are meaningless to a parent who is in an emergency room with teary-eyed inquiries about his or her injured child.
Reader Brian McGowan lives in Bethpage.