How do we find the best school bus drivers?

Johnson City Press • Mar 4, 2018 at 8:30 AM

The Washington County School System has a nagging problem. It’s one that made headlines again — not once, but twice — last week.

Although its latest manifestation was not as serious as it was when the problem raised its head in 2012, it’s clear county officials have been unable to get their arms around it.

And that leaves many Washington County parents worried whenever their children ride the school bus. They wonder if their child’s bus driver is responsible enough to do his or her job safely and soberly.

On Tuesday, a Washington County Schools bus crashed into a tree. The Tennessee Highway Patrol said the driver and four students were injured in the crash. Lanty Ross Lindley, 68, later told crash investigators he had fallen asleep at the wheel.

A day later, a Washington County Schools bus driver was charged with driving under the influence while transporting 23 students. The Jonesborough Police Department said Jackie Adams, 49, was also charged with reckless endangerment.

And another bombshell came Friday with news that Washington County officials had fired Randy Adams, the school system’s transportation supervisor, after learning no drivers have been tested for drugs or alcohol since 2014.

Both Lindley and Adams were suspended without pay while officials review their cases. School administrators say both individuals have had clean records while driving for the system.

That’s little comfort, though, knowing neither driver had been tested for drugs or alcohol in the last three years.

It might be easy to dismiss last week as simply a few days of incredibly bad luck for the school system. It’s hard, however, to forget that incident in 2012 when a Washington County Schools bus driver thought it would be cool to make students lose their cookies by speeding down a narrow country road.

That stunt sent 27 students to the hospital after the bus left the highway and rolled to a stop.

Last week’s local headlines involving bus drivers happened at the same time as a jury in Hamilton County convicted a Chattanooga driver of criminally negligent homicide in a 2016 school bus cash that killed six students. That incident spurred legislation a year later to equip all school buses in Tennessee with seat belts.

State lawmakers balked at the cost of the seat belt bill and instead approved legislation pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration to raise the minimum age to be a school bus driver in Tennessee from 21 to 25. That law, which went into effect this year, also requires enhanced training for all bus drivers.

The new rules have received mixed reviews from area school transportation officials. Some administrators say portions of the law, along with a ban on texting by school bus drivers already in place, will improve school bus safety.

Randy Adams was one of the school transportation officials who told the Press in January they fear the new provisions will make it more difficult to hire and retain school bus drivers

Driving a school bus is more than turning a wheel and opening a door at the stops. School bus drivers carry precious cargo, and parents, school administrators and taxpayers should insist that the most-qualified drivers are hired to transport that cargo.

Finding and keeping the right individuals behind the wheel is not easy. Low pay and poor benefits have been stumbling blocks to hiring dependable drivers, but low pay is not the only factor. The job has split hours that are unappealing to many would-be applicants.

And then there are disciplinary responsibilities that also go with driving a bus. Keeping students orderly and in their seats is not always easy.

It’s time to decide what price we are willing to pay for the safety of our schoolchildren. We know bus accidents will happen, but they should not be the result of an unqualified, distracted or impaired driver behind the wheel. Regularly testing bus drivers for drugs and alcohol should be the first step in addressing this problem.

Cheap solutions are not the answer.

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