Early on a weekday morning, your child steps onto a school bus. The yellow doors shut, and that waving hand disappears down the street -- with a total stranger behind the wheel. It's hard not to feel anxious at that moment.
According to the Albany, NY-based National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), there are 480,000 yellow school buses in the U.S. that transport more than 25 million kids to and from school (that's about half of the kids in the country!) While riding the school bus is the safest form of mass transportation in this country, the recent, heart-wrenching accident involving a school bus in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has every parent clutching their child's hand just a little tighter as they wait for the bus in the morning.
While the accident is still being investigated, here's what we know: According to CNN, six children ages 6 to 10 were killed and dozens were injured when school bus driver Johnthony Walker, age 24, allegedly drove the bus carrying 35 students into a tree. He is now facing vehicular homicide charges, as well as reckless driving charges, according to People magazine. It has come to light that parents and kids complained about Walker's driving and temperament before the horrific crash, which allegedly involved such excessive speed that, heartbreakingly, CNN reports the bus split in half upon impact. It's unclear why officials didn't act in time to prevent the tragedy.
Although it's painful to even think about what happened in this still-grieving community in Chattanooga, it's important to know that according to the NAPT, bus drivers are vigorously screened through a variety of methods:
It's worth noting that states and/or individual school districts can decide whether to check for a criminal history of anyone getting a commercial driver's license, but school bus drivers are also subject to a federal mandate that permits, but does not require, random testing for drug and alcohol offenses. Criminal background checks are required in every state except North Carolina and Virginia, but there are different standards (for example, on how far back in the record to look). In any case, even the best screenings can offer only partial reassurance. Taking these steps can help ensure that your child's driver is one who deserves your trust.
Get details on your driver. For privacy reasons, school districts usually won't reveal information from an individual driver's personnel file. But if parents have concerns regarding the bus driver or an issue on the bus, they should contact the district's transportation department.
Find out the basics. Ask your school district's director of transportation to explain how local drivers are screened. If you live in one of the two states that don't require criminal background checks, lobby your school board to make them mandatory.
Report concerns. Common problems are drivers who seem mean to kids or who upset children by yelling. If you have concerns about the way a driver behaves with your or any child, the NAPT recommends reaching out to the transportation department promptly.
Keep problems in perspective. Despite the horror that took place in Tennessee, it's unlikely your child will come to harm on a school bus. School buses are still one of the safest forms of transportation in the U.S.
Click here to download more bus safety tips from the NAPT.
Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.