Until 1972, school busing in New York was a mostly unregulated enterprise. Although the state had driver training courses and programs dating back to the 1940s, there were no regulatory requirements for training. Anybody with a driver’s license was qualified to get behind the wheel of a 15-ton bus.
That all changed in the weeks, months and years following a ghastly school bus crash in Congers, NY, which claimed the lives of five students. The accident swiftly spurred substantial changes in bus construction standards and driver training and supervision. Several state agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Education Department and Department of Transportation, implemented stricter regulation of the school bus industry. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for school buses, meanwhile, were created and implemented in 1977.
One of the biggest changes brought about by the Congers tragedy was legislation in 1974 that added Article 19-A: Special Requirements for Bus Drivers to the state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law. The provision created a battery of requirements for ongoing driver testing and observation.
According to the DMV website, Article 19-A requires drivers to:
- Obtain a commercial driver’s license.
- Complete pre-employment and biennial medical examinations and any required follow-ups. These tests includes general physicals, drug screenings (both before employment and randomly during employment) and physical performance tests, in which prospective drivers must be able to complete a series of timed tasks, (e.g, running up and down the bus steps three times in 30 seconds, or dragging 125 pounds 30 feet in 30 seconds, etc.).
- Submit pre-employment and annual driver license abstracts.
- Be fingerprinted for a New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and Federal Bureau of Investigation criminal history review.
- Complete annual defensive driving observations.
- Complete biennial road tests.
- Complete biennial oral/written tests.
- Be appointed by the local board of education.
The whole process can take up to three months, according to Susan Stearns, a former bus driver who has headed up the transportation department for a school district in Onondaga County since 1999.
“New York has the highest standards in the country as far as drivers and safety equipment. There are a lot of entities and steps involved,” Stearns said. “Because of the liability and serious safety issues, you can’t be too careful. It’s a $100,000 vehicle filled with people’s children.”
Drivers are not regulators’ only target. The vehicles themselves also must pass muster. They’re given the once-over twice a day, with extensive pre-trip and post-trip checks before and after every single excursion, in which drivers check all lights, systems, emergency equipment, etc.
A school district’s mechanics, meanwhile, are charged with managing long-term preventative maintenance. Typically, each bus will get a thorough examination every 30 to 45 days. Each bus then must pass a Department of Transportation inspection every six months.
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