Durango School District 9-R buses tally more than 500,000 miles a year hauling students to classes, sporting events and other activities.
And its safety record is good, according to the statistics kept by the Colorado Department of Education, said Jennifer Okes, director of finance for the CDE.
But a rollover crash in November that injured 16 students has put the spotlight on the district’s buses and drivers. The district has had 20 crashes in the past five years, most of them fender-benders and when no students were on board. In addition to the Nov. 17 crash, two students were injured in a December 2014 crash. The drivers in both injury crashes were cited.
School buses generally are considered the safest way to get kids to school.
“Students are about 50 times more likely to arrive at school alive if they take the bus than if they drive themselves or ride with friends,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says on its school bus safety site for parents.
The NHTSA announced recently that three-point safety belts are recommended for mini-buses, but it continues to say that seat belts in the larger school buses are not as safe, a spokeswoman said in an email.
Because school buses are built with much heavier materials than passenger vehicles, they can withstand impacts with less damage, the NHTSA said. Colorado State Patrol Capt. Adrian Driscoll said he was surprised at how well the bus that rolled over had survived structurally. The district declared the bus a complete loss, 9-R transportation supervisor Ryan Robley said.
Among 9-R’s biggest challenges are the sheer distances and variety of terrains their drivers have to cover in a district that coves 2,300 square miles. With 23 bus routes, they carry 1,400 students about 1,475 miles each day, which, combined with field trips and athletics and activities, adds up to 535,000 miles annually.
“Our buses travel to Lemon (Reservoir), Purgatory (Resort), Redmesa and the border of New Mexico to help get students to school,” 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp said. “Challenges can include turnaround points, traffic flows, road conditions, weather issues, etc.”
Popp said the heavy traffic and tight-turning radiuses in town can be among the most challenging situations drivers confront, and wildlife is as much of a hazard to school buses as it is to other vehicles on the road.
“9-R has been taking a real hit on this,” Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty said of the recent rollover. “I’ve been working with them practically every day, and people should know how seriously they take the safety of their students.”
District 9-R’s two mechanics keep a fleet of 87 vehicles, including school buses, minibuses and Suburbans, on the road, and they must meet both Colorado Department of Education and 9-R standards. The mechanics undergo extensive training before they ever touch a bus, mechanic Roger Roots said.
“Every new bus has technical innovations,” said Daniel Blythe, the supervisory mechanic in the bus barn, about the mandatory one-week training each year. “We have to stay up-to-date with what’s happening in the yellow-and-black world.”
A bookcase on one wall of the bus barn on Colorado Highway 3 holds thick blue binders, one for each vehicle.
“I can tell you every light bulb ever put in a 1996 bus,” Roots said. “The tires on the bus I’m working on now are legal, but we made the decision to replace them now because they might not be good until the end of the fiscal year (June 30).”
Drivers must pass extensive background checks before they begin training with the district to earn their commercial driver’s license, Superintendent Dan Snowberger said, and their driving records are checked on an ongoing basis. The CDL training takes four to six weeks and is only the beginning. Subject to random drug and alcohol testing, drivers are taught emergency medical procedures, safe loading and unloading and how to manage students, which can be one of the most stressful parts of the job.
As a result of the Nov. 17 rollover, when shouting students distracted the driver, Snowberger instituted new disciplinary rules for students riding district buses. Students whose behavior impacts the safety of the bus will be suspended from bus privileges for three days. A second offense will lead to a longer suspension, “up to and including the remainder of the school year,” he said.
Road conditions also play a big part in bus safety.
“It’s too bad (La Plata) County’s road mill levy didn’t pass,” Doughty said, because buses travel a large portion of their routes on roads that are not in good shape. The county repaired Lightner Creek Road (County Road 207), where the rollover occurred, two weeks after the crash, adding a shoulder and guardrail.