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Use of Students as School-Bus Drivers Declining

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For 30 years or more prior to the enrollment boom of the 1960's, the student school-bus drivers employed in a number of states across the country "were selected, strictly trained, and thoroughly supervised," according to David Soule, pupil-transportation specialist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

At one time, more than 20 states allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to drive school buses, and Wyoming even hired 15-year-olds for a while, according to Hanford Combs, president of School Transportation Systems Inc.

Most students had "exceptionally good" records, according to Mr. Soule.

But in the 1960's, he noted, as the children of the baby-boom era swelled enrollments and school transportation systems, state bus systems "became overloaded and, in the rush for drivers, saw youths involved in more accidents."

Ages Raised

From the mid-1950's until about 1968, 16 states permitted students under 18 to drive buses, according to Mr. Soule. Maine subsequently raised its minimum driving age for school-bus drivers to 21, leaving 15 states with under-18 drivers.

In 1968, Florida, South Dakota, and Texas raised the minimum driving age for school-bus drivers to 18, leaving the 12 states that currently employ students. They are: Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wyoming.

However, in four of those states--Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, and Wyoming--the number of 16- and 17-year-old drivers is negligible, Mr. Soule noted.

From 1969 to 1979, the years covered in a report recently completed by Mr. Soule, states began to move away from using 16- and 17-year-old drivers.

Since students had been hired primarily because they could be paid less than adults, Mr. Hanford pointed out, when other job and training opportunities opened up for them, fewer opted to drive buses. In North and South Carolina, however, significant numbers of students continue to be employed as school-bus drivers.

Tests and Certification

Students who are employed as drivers are usually put through a selection and training procedure, after which they are tested and certified by the state department of education. Requirements and training vary from state to state, according to Mr. Soule.

In South Carolina, which has hired student bus drivers since the state took over the school-bus sys-tem in 1951, students are recommended to the state by teachers and guidance counselors, according to Cliff Nix, assistant director of driver training and safety for the South Carolina Department of Education.

Students who are accepted into the training program participate in a three-day out-of-school class and take two tests, one written and one behind the wheel, Mr. Nix said. Of the 8,500 students who apply to drive buses each year, approximately 6,500 are certified for a three-year period.

Most of those students drive buses for only one to one and a half years before they graduate. A student is disqualified if he or she is found to be responsible for a bus accident.

Most students drive every weekday, Mr. Nix said; they are paid an average of $3.47 an hour. Adults are employed to drive handicapped and mid-day kindergarten students.

When student bus drivers complete their morning routes, they drop off the buses at school. There, the vehicles are filled with gas and receive daily maintenance inspections.

Having the buses on school grounds during the day, Mr. Nix pointed out, is another advantage of hiring student drivers instead of adults; the latter often take the buses home with them during the day and have to come to school for time-consuming and less frequent maintenance inspections.--ab

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