Driven By Concern
October 15, 2020
Each morning, afternoon, and evening, they spangle Lakewood’s congested streets, transporting our most precious commodity.
Behind the large steering wheel of each school bus sits a driver who must keep a sharp eye simultaneously on the road in front of them and on the lively children chattering behind them.
Does your daughter’s driver frown at the bag of Cheerios she clutches in her little hand every morning? Were you frustrated by the denial of your innocent request that your son’s driver stop closer to your house? What should you do if your child is bullied on the school bus?
Several dedicated bus drivers share with us what they always wished Lakewood’s parents would understand.
Is “The bus driver’s so mean!” a refrain in your home?
Children can confuse strict with mean, and bus drivers often are—and should be—strict.
“I have only one rule,” says Shimon Meyer, a driver for Jay’s Bus Service. “Safety. The kids on my bus know that there is no monkey business here.” The rules our children love to hate, such as remaining seated and refraining from eating on the bus, have actually been instituted for their own protection. “Kids tell me they want to stand as I drive,” Shimon expounds. “I ask them, ‘What if there’s a short stop? Do you want to fall? Do you want to go flying?’”
“We don’t make up the rules,” says Miriam Gofman, another Jay’s Bus Service driver. “They are instituted by the Board of Ed.”
“NJSA 39:3B-11 requires all passengers on school buses in New Jersey to wear seat belts,” says Binyomin of HT Bus Services. “You must be wearing a seat belt from when the bus begins moving until the bus has stopped at your destination.”
Binyomin speaks of the heightened danger inherent in riding a school bus, which is a heavy machine. It’s important that parents understand that riding in a bus without a seat belt—and certainly while standing, walking around, or perching on top of the backrests—can be as dangerous and perhaps even more dangerous than doing so in a car.
Unlike the interior of the typical car or van, there are a lot of exposed metal furnishings inside a bus. The most dangerous area is the front of the bus, where there are metal levers and surfaces with sharp edges and a cavernous stairwell leading down to a plate glass door. Buses are powerful machines which travel with tremendous momentum and are equipped with heavy-duty brake systems that are equally as powerful. Suspension systems on buses wear out very quickly, and while riding down the typical Lakewood street, passengers get tossed up and down constantly. The aisle running down the middle of the bus lends a false impression that it is a safe place to stand, but the opposite is true: children of all ages often lose their balance and hurtle down the aisle, sometimes even down the stairs in the front of the bus.
“Talk to your kids about sitting down,” begs Margherita Rossano, a dispatcher at Jay’s Bus Service.
Shimon points out that “if a driver lets kids stand, it’s not because he loves them. It’s because he doesn’t care about them.”
Do you attempt to alleviate some of your morning stress by sending your child on the bus with their breakfast in hand? Several drivers explain that the Board of Ed disallows children eating on the bus for safety reasons.
“It’s more because of thedanger involved, not the mess,” Miriam says. “A child who is eating on the bus can, chas v’shalom, choke if the driver makes a short stop.”
Binyomin mentions that certain food and drink choices, such as soda cans, are especially dangerous for a bus ride.
Furthermore, drivers can get frustrated about the mess generated by these en-route repasts. Every driver is responsible for the cleanliness of their bus, with minimal cleaning help provided by the bus company. An open ziplock bag casually dangling from slack little fingers can easily send Cheerios cheerfully rolling into every corner of the bus. A scrambled egg means a sticky disposable plate or cup left on the seat to greet the next passenger or the busy driver at the end of the run. No driver wants to face a carpet of empty snack bags as they check their bus after completing their route. “Cleaning is not the chosen job of any driver,” Binyomin notes. “He has a right to enact whatever measures are necessary to prevent a mess.”
Does your child’s bus swing right by your house on its way to the bus stop? Or would you simply find a house stop to be terribly convenient during inclement weather or when you’re running late? It is tempting to ask (beg? Cajole? Bribe?) a driver to come directly to your house, but it may be more complicated than you think.
“Parents don’t realize that when driving a bus, every minute counts,” Miriam stresses. “We calculate down to the second how long each stop should take, even based on the fact that younger children walk more slowly! Adding stops adds long minutes to already long runs. If I’m three minutes late to my first school, I’m six minutes late to the second, and twelve minutes late to the third.”
“Ninety percent of the time,” Shimon shares, “when people ask for a house stop, on the first day they are standing ready in front of their houses. The second day, they are sitting on their steps. The third day, they are still inside their houses. And by the fourth, a sibling is begging me to wait just another moment; their brother is coming! During morning runs, there is simply not enough time for this.”
Rivky Greenspan, the employee in charge of human resources and accidents for Jay’s, agrees. “People call all the time; they had a baby and need a house stop. Everyone needs a house stop! But every extra few minutes add up to a monumental amount of time.”
But there is more to the story. “If we go into a cul-de-sac that wasn’t built to accommodate buses, we can hit a parked car,” Rivky says. Even if it’s an illegally parked car, it isn’t fair to place the responsibility on us just because you bribed your child’s driver! Parents must look at the broader picture.” It’s important for a parent not to raise their expectations of drivers to the point that people no longer want to be drivers.
A run that is made up of a bunch of pinpointed addresses is also much harder for a substitute driver to manage, Shimon adds.
Efraim Kugelman, a dispatcher for HT Bus Services, takes this a step further. “It is very helpful,” he says, “even on hot, cold, or rainy days, to come to your bus stop ten minutes before the bus is due to arrive. Just put the time in your head as ten minutes earlier. It will alleviate many problems, including the dangerous practice of running after a bus.”
Misbehavior on school buses: Who is responsible?
Naturally, your little angel sits calmly in his seat throughout the ride, quietly whispering to his equally well-behaved brother sitting next to him. Unfortunately, however, the long school day may predispose other people’s children to rambunctious behavior on the bus. What’s a driver to do?
“Kids act differently in the mornings and afternoons,” Miriam notes. “They are much rowdier in the afternoons, after sitting in class the whole day. And girls are typically shrill, so a driver has to be prepared to drive despite the noise.” She explains that the driver may radio their supervisor to send a teacher or principal out to meet them when the bus arrives at the school. This way they can report any concerning or recalcitrant behavior.
“One widely prescribed remedy for fighting or bullying is that the driver assign seats,” Binyomin says. “Also, the driver may file a report with the school about the misbehavior, and the report presumably gets discussed with the student and their parents. However, there’s not much a driver can practically accomplish themselves for two reasons: First, while driving, the driver must keep their attention on the road and not on the passengers. Second, NJSA 18A:25-2 prohibits a driver from excluding a passenger from the route; that authority is assigned to the principal of the school. Therefore, the driver can’t effectively enforce his rules, because, if the child refuses, ultimately, others will have to decide whether or not to suspend the student from the bus.”
“Schools must be on board with the driver,” Shimon avers. “They have to make sure there is a safe atmosphere on the bus, and that can only happen if they enforce it.”
“When something goes wrong on a bus, people can be quick to blame bus drivers,” says Rivky. “But the truth is that kids often get hurt because of atrocious behavior on the bus. How many times can the driver pull over to the side of the road?” Rivky also mentions the need to make a kiddush Hashem.“Please teach your children to have derech eretz and respect for all people,” she implores. “Teach your children to sit. To behave. Their rough schedule doesn’t give them a right to be rude. Please understand that these drivers don’t know about Lev Rochel Bikur Cholim. They don’t know about Chai Lifeline. They only know the impression we give them.”
“Today’s buses have cameras,” Shimon adds. “This can really help principals and parents learn what actually happened. But the cameras only store memory for four to seven days, so if someone needs to review a camera, it’s important to reach out to the school right away.”
Yitzchak Nissenbaum, the owner of HT Bus Services, feels that schools ought to add bus safety to their curriculums. “I’d be more than willing to come down to schools,” he says. “I’d teach the kids how to get on and off the bus and, in general, how to act safely.”
Contacting your child’s driver
Are you concerned about alleged goings-on on your son’s school bus? Does your daughter have a life-threatening allergy? Do you simply want to know if the bus will always be coming at 8:15? Should you speak to the driver at the bus stop?
“Generally not,” answers Shimon. “It causes traffic to build up, and it costs us time.” Multiply a five-second question by 40 stops, and you have a bus that is 15 minutes late. Standing in the open door and preventing the driver from ending the conversation is unfair to everyone else on the route.
“There are two problems with parents soliciting the driver’s intervention directly,” Binyomin expounds. “First, drivers are typically fully occupied with their other responsibilities, namely keeping to the schedule, safely navigating through traffic, and operating their vehicles. Second, drivers are not public relations experts; they’re usually good at what they do but unpredictable when it comes to dealing with parents.
“Every driver has a supervisor whose job it is to do all the talking on behalf of the driver. Parents should communicate their concerns or requests to the bus company, preferably through the school/camp staff who deal with transportation matters.”
“We all have radios,” says Miriam. “You can call the dispatcher. They will radio us.”
“The best time to speak to the bus company is between ten and one,” Shimon advises. “The kids are in school then, and the dispatchers can contact the drivers.”
Traffic: the bane of every commuter
“I don’t understand,” Miriam says. “Your child, your cousin, your neighbor is on that bus you are trying to cut off.”
Furthermore, the buses carrying our precious children navigate the labyrinth of Lakewood’s neighborhoods and developments, taking circuitous routes so that no child is left behind, but rarely will the driver of a car concede his right of way to a bus.
“The buses let each other through,” Miriam says, “but not cars. Sometimes I’ll carefully begin to inch out, and drivers start angrily honking their horns. Do they realize I may have already waited for ten or fifteen cars to pass? I could sit all day at one intersection.”
Miriam recommends that people accept Lakewood’s bumper-to-bumper traffic as inevitable and leave sufficient time to reach their destinations, obviating the need for frustration. “And don’t judge drivers,” she adds with a smile. “You have no idea what it’s like to drive a bus.”
The buildup of vehicles in front of you might be a matter of safety. “Stopping for a bus’s flashing lights is for the safety of your kids!” adds Margherita “When a bus has its yellow lights on, slow down. And when its red lights are flashing and the stop sign is out, come to a complete stop.”
Traffic accidents are always unfortunate and dangerous, and sometimes deadly. When a school bus is involved, it is that much more frightening.
“Fifty percent of bus accidents happen because of illegally parked cars,” Rivky comments. “Buses have a wide tail swing and despite the drivers’ extreme caution, they can easily hit cars that are not supposed to be in their way.”
In the event of an accident, the police review the camera footage, and it is usually easy to determine who is liable for a bus accident.
If you witness a school bus leaving the scene of an accident, call the bus company. “Sometimes the driver simply didn’t realize,” Rivky explains. “There is a loud engine and a busload of noisy kids! If you alert us, we will call them back to the scene.”
Ensuring safe drivers
“I laugh when people suggest that perhaps we should do background checks,” Rivky says. They have no idea how many checks we do.”
The school bus industry is very tightly regulated by the State of New Jersey. Drivers must undergo a physical exam every six months to two years, depending on their age and overall health. They must also submit to random substance and alcohol tests. Their fingerprints are scanned for criminal history every four years.
“If a driver is arrested for a DUI,” Rivky shares, “we get a certified letter the next day notifying us of this new criminal record, even if they were in their own car at the time.”
Drivers are given the once-over before they get onto their buses in the morning. “If a driver doesn’t look well, we send them home,” Rivky says. “We cannot put children at risk.”
The current statewide law, as delineated in Executive Order No. 175, requires face masks and social distancing on school buses for drivers and students alike. “I would advise parents to equip their children with a mask, as well as to instruct them to follow all safety instructions of the driver obediently, to the extent that they feel safe,” says Binyomin. “For example, they should only lower the mask if they have difficulty breathing.”
The bus drivers’ message
“Buses aren’t driven on autopilot,” Shimon says. “They are driven by human beings. You can build a real relationship with your children’s bus drivers. Tell your driver when you’re making a simcha. By now I’ve been to brissim of babies born to people that were once passengers on my bus.
“I make sure to treat every passenger well. But if you treat your bus driver with respect, it will have a powerful effect on how they will relate to you. We make mistakes,” he admits. “We are human. We react to the way people act to us.”
Binyomin recommends keeping a respectful distance unless otherwise instructed. “Many drivers would not necessarily appreciate a relationship with the children, their parents, or their principals,” he says. “They simply want to do their job.”
Although for many, driving a bus is more than an occupation. It’s a calling.
“For me, it’s a zechus and honor to drive kids to school, especially bachurim,” says Miriam. “They keep me going.”