SEBRING — All district school bus drivers have been going through behind-the-wheel refresher training after three accidents caused by district drivers resulted in two buses damaged beyond repair and a third bus with significant damage.
After an accident, a driver is retrained, said School Board of Highlands County Transportation Director Transportation Director David Solomon, but, now, all of the district’s 98 drivers are being retrained.
“Sometimes people get lax when they are driving the same route every day and that’s the reason we are having this two hours of obstacle training,” he said.
Solomon summarized the three school bus accidents where his drivers were at fault, but no students were on board.
One occurred on U.S. 27 when a bus hit the back of a commercial truck that was turning off the roadway.
Early in the school year, a bus was crossing State Road 70 when it was hit by another vehicle.
Both buses were total loses.
Another accident caused about $5,000 damage to a bus when a “brand new” substitute driver was turning a corner in parking lot and struck a building, Solomon said.
“The buses that we lost were older buses, but that is no excuse. Our folks are professional drivers and they should not make the mistakes that were made,” he said.
The training obstacle course included exercises/simulations in parallel parking, driving through a narrow alleyway, backing in an ally, backing to a loading dock and a railroad crossing stop.
Transportation Department Lake Placid Area Supervisor Toby Cribbs monitored the parallel parking exercise.
Any time a driver has even a minor incident, they have to do a behind-the-wheel refresher course with a trainer, he said.
Cribbs called out to driver: “Let’s do a parallel park!”
“Turn hard,” he said as the driver backed up.
The driver parked successfully without striking any of the safety cones.
“Beautiful,” Cribbs concluded.
Along with the challenges of maintaining a trained roster of drivers, the transportation department has been continuously challenged with filling its vacancies.
“We started the school year short 10 drivers and we have never caught up the whole time period,” Solomon said.
The transportation department has frequent training classes to bring drivers on board, but the department continues to have a shortage of seven drivers.
The district has 100 bus routes and 103 drivers.
“We are actively trying to recruit people,” he said.
Many people may not realize that many drivers make less than $12,000 a year as part-time employees, Solomon said.
So that is why there is such a big turnover in personnel?
With about 11 absences a day, along with the seven vacancies, about 18 percent of the driver population has to be filled by substitute drivers or supervisors/trainers every day, he said.
“But, I think overall, we have some outstanding drivers,” Solomon noted. “School bus transportation is probably the safest mode of travel, probably even safer than walking to school.”