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Safety is top priority for Carter County School Bus mechanics/drivers

John Thompson • Aug 12, 2018 at 4:24 PM

ELIZABETHTON — “We drive the most precious cargo on the streets and highways of this county,” said Tom Houghton and Nyle Barnett.

The two men were referring to the task they frequently perform of driving school buses loaded with 50 or more children, taking them to school in the mornings and back home in the afternoons.

The men will begin performing this important job once again this morning, as the Carter County School System begins a new school year.

The men are proud to be Carter Countians, although Barnett was born here and Houghton was born in Syracuse, N.Y. Still, his family moved here when he was a child. He graduated from Unaka High School, while Barnett graduated from Cloudland.

Houghton and Barnett aren’t regular bus drivers. They are full-time mechanics at the school bus garage. Part of their job is to drive buses when a regular bus driver is sick or otherwise unable to drive the bus route. Because of their backup responsibilities, Houghton and Barnett drive buses in every part of the county, from the lowest elevation in Happy Valley to the roads that climb to 5,000 feet in elevation in Roan Mountain.

“We get to see all the problems the drivers complain about,” Barnett said.

Some of the biggest problems are caused by drivers of other vehicles who don’t know or don’t care about the laws about driving with school buses. That is especially true at this time of the year, when buses have not been on the roads for a few months.

Both Barnett and Houghton have seen drivers go right by a school bus when its stop sign is fully extended and the red lights are flashing. “Most of the time when it happens, the drivers are on their cell phones,” Houghton said.

In another problem involving cell phones, Sgt. Nathan Hall of the Tennessee Highway Patrol reminded motorists that a state law passed last year makes it illegal to drive through a school zone that has its warning lights flashing.

Both Barnett and Houghton have seen impatient drivers who are worried about getting to work on time. They suggest that if the driver could alter his schedule by just five minutes earlier or later, they probably will be able to avoid the delay caused by the bus on that section of the route.

To make sure a driver’s inattention or ignorance does not cause an accident too terrible to imagine, Barnett and Houghton, like all bus drivers, don’t open the bus door to let passengers exit until they have seen the cars come to a complete stop.

Even when cars have stopped, there is still a concern, especially on multiple lane highways

“The law says that cars in all lanes must stop for a school bus, unless there is a divided median,” Houghton said. He said that is especially a problem on the Stoney Creek Highway, which has five lanes on its lower end. When the stop on the highway to pick up or discharge children, cars in all lanes must stop, since there is no median. On U.S. Highway 19E in Valley Forge, there is a median, so oncoming traffic may continue when a bus stops to pick up or discharge children.

Barnett and Houghton said these laws are in place for one reason, safety. They said safety is the top priority in everything they do in the bus garage. That includes their main job of maintaining the buses. Barnett said the job is so important they get help from the Highway Patrol. They said Trooper Robert Wills has the special duty of inspecting all the buses.

Hall agreed with Barnett and Houghton, saying Wills and civilian Vernon Thomas are supervised by him as members of the Fall Branch District Pupil Transportation Section.

Barnett also discussed one other aspect of school bus safety that becomes especially important during winter months. That is the decision made after a winter storm to close or not close school for the day.

Because Barnett lives at an elevation above 4,000 feet, he has become a part of the decision-making process on school closure. At times when snow falls, Barnett said he remains in contact with Wayne Sams, transportation supervisor for the school system. He lets Sams know about conditions around his house, and when Sams needs to make a decision on closure, Barnett travels the roads around Roan Mountain to report on their conditions.

After the storm has passed and it seems springlike in Happy Valley, Barnett said roads may still be iced over in the higher elevations for several days, especially those shaded by the mountains and get little or no sunlight.

Barnett said they try to make the close or open decision as early as possible. Not only does this help the parents know whether they have to alter their plans, but it also prepares the school staff, especially the food service workers, who need time to prepare breakfast if school is in session.

Barnett said the decision is always made on one factor: safety. “They don’t say that we have already been out of school 14 days and we need to go,” Barnett said. “It is always whether or not it is safe.”

As Houghton and Barnett get ready for the new school year, their emphasis will remain on safety. After all, they say they are transporting the most precious cargo on the roads.

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