I know 2016 has been a real jackass of a year, but, if you have kids, you can be thankful for this: their school bus is not being driven by some burn-out kid with less than a year of driving experience. That sounds crazy to us today, sure, but that’s who drove my little ass to school for years.
That’s because I grew up in one of the few states that allowed 16- and 17-year olds to drive school buses. In fact, I was in one of the last two holdout states to do this, both Carolinas, before the practice was banned in 1988.
I was reminded of this when I heard about that horrific fatal bus wreck in Chattanooga, Tenn. last week. That crash was far worse than any I can recall, but school bus wrecks seemed strangely common when I was growing up. In hindsight this may have had something to do with the fact that there were a lot of school bus drivers with less than a year of driving experience.
For example, in the 1986-1987 school year, North Carolina had 5,000 drivers were were between 16 and 17, out of under 15,000 drivers statewide. Let’s just think about this for a second. There was a time, when I was growing up, when you could tell a parent, “Hey! We’re going to take your kids – you know, the offspring you love in a primal way you never totally understood before you had them–to school on this big-ass, top-heavy truck with no seatbelts. But don’t worry, the driver is a high school student with well over eight months of mostly-sober driving experience! Everything’ll be great!”
As a parent now, that shit seems insane.
I remember these drivers. These were, generally, not ambitious students eager to get a leg up on a lifetime career of bus-driving. These were mostly burnouts excited to get the fuck out of school for two whole periods and make some extra weed money in the process. I’m not making this shit up, the drivers flat-out admitted this to any kid who would listen.
And yes, statistically they were less safe, but I don’t need statistics to tell me that–I was there, in my silver Atari jacket, watching the mailboxes fly off their posts as a big yellow behemoth swerved too close to a curb and launched a half-dozen novelty-shaped mailboxes skyward.
Mailbox loss was a near constant. The mailbox community were the real victims of student bus drivers, but the kids sometimes didn’t fare much better. I remember, at least several times a year, you’d come to school and see a bunch of your friends holding a wet brown paper towel to their head, because the brown, wet paper towel was the penicillin of elementary school nurses.
The wet paper towel was also the advanced medical attention given to students who were in the bus that rolled over taking a turn too fast. School buses are quite top-heavy, and, if you’re not careful, pretty easy to roll over in a turn. A good number of 16- and 17-year old drivers weren’t careful every year, because buses seemed to flop on their sides an awful lot.
I don’t ever remember anyone really badly injured, though; just what might, in hindsight, have been mild concussions. I think many, at least where I grew up, flopped onto the grassy shoulders that lined most residential neighborhoods, instead of, say, down cliff faces.
Driving a schoolbus isn’t easy. But a driver with at least, say, at least whole entire year–maybe even a wildly generous two or more–of driving experience is probably a good idea.
So, sure, modern childhood may be full of more pressures and distractions and whatever the hell else than I knew as a kid, but I for one know that I’ll be thanking any god or force or Cthulhu that I’m not sending my 6-year-old to school on a bus driven by someone potentially as stupid and reckless as I was at 16.
Bitch about overprotective parenting all you like, but I’m happy that sometime in the late 1980s we all collectively decided we don’t want our kids dead, despite what we may yell at them sometimes.