Be boring: How to avoid the chaos caused by bus driver shortages

Boring equates to everything running on time and being fully resourced with no major disruptions.
Tim Ammon
Tim Ammon
Tim Ammon is vice president and GM of passenger services at Zonar, a provider of fleet management technology.

The goal of school district transportation operation, whether administrators want to admit it or not, is to succeed at being boring. Boring equates to everything running on time and being fully resourced with no major disruptions.

But bus driver shortages and district resourcing difficulties frequently create conditions that are the total opposite. Every morning across the U.S., school buses routinely arrive late. Some don’t show up at all. At a minimum, students and families experience limited disruption, but at a maximum, major changes cause a cascading effect across all areas of district operations.

Even with minimal disruption, parent and caregiver anxiety is exponentially heightened by simply not knowing. And, with the increased national focus on student safety, the school bus is a critical security concern that should not be overlooked in incident response planning.

As school security hardens, the entire school perimeter and school buses shift to a higher threat level, too. District administrators can no longer ignore the need to deliver robust and effective student safety measures while driving operational efficiencies.

Avoid ‘wrong bus, wrong stop’ incidents

Student safety starts at the bus stop. The management of loading and unloading passengers is a fundamental aspect of the student safety spectrum. Persistent driver shortages increase demands on drivers and introduce additional risks to the stop management process.

Whereas a regular route driver understands their routes’ intricacies, substitute drivers may not be prepared for the subtleties of a dirt road pickup or a highly trafficked drop-off. Technologies designed to support drivers can reduce the anxiety and distractions of learning a route while enhancing focus on student safety.

Dispatch teams need seamless communication with individual buses to navigate last-minute changes, regardless of drivers’ familiarity with an area. School buses outfitted with state-of-the-art GPS technology maximize their time spent operating, make live locations clear to coordinators at dispatch, and help avoid road hazards as they arise.

Give parents greater visibility in school district transportation

“Who is on the bus?” is one of the immediate, crucial response-driving questions asked by law enforcement, first responders or parents when a crisis occurs. Technology gives everyone in a student’s network the answers in real-time. Responsibly distributing that critical incident information requires a technology partner who knows your district, understands your school operations, and can customize their options to the unique demands of individual routes.

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More than half of parents report wanting access to real-time school bus information in the event of an emergency, as well as timely communication about transportation schedules and drop-off/pick-up details. This is an opportunity to integrate technologies to reduce anxiety, enhance safety, and increase operational awareness. For example, automated alerting of a child’s boarding and exiting in pickup and drop-off zones provides certainty and calmness to parents.

RFID card swipe capabilities, similar to what many adults use to enter their workplaces, add another safety layer. School districts deploy this technology to know when and where a student enters and exits a bus. These technologies help increase confidence in school transportation programs and help administrators avoid unintentionally increasing guardian stress, for example, when maintenance or driver reassignments result in bus swaps.

Control the controllables

The risks associated with running a full-scale school bus fleet will always be high just by virtue of the number of daily touchpoints and the precious nature of its cargo. Each vehicle may serve up to 70 students, with multiple pick-ups, amounting to dozens of stops. The additional demands of using the bus to take students on complex routes to different campuses, field trips, and afterschool programs increases the complication of operations.

During an average school year, around 10 billion student trips are made. One bus pulled out of service sets off reverberations of safety risks across a district and disrupts operations for administrators.

With so many trips on the line, these unplanned disruptions are inevitable. That’s why administrators must control the controllables. Districts can significantly reduce the frequency of unplanned disruptions by ensuring their school bus fleet is in good working order. Verifiable, paperless pre- and post-inspection systems help maintain compliance and streamline processes for busy drivers.

Today’s smart fleet management platforms seamlessly capture and consolidate pre- and post-check inspection data, including integration into maintenance work order software so mechanics can prioritize and prepare for repairs before they lead to costly breakdowns. No driver wants to get stuck roadside with children onboard or stranded at the stop expecting a pickup.

Being boring is the most exciting thing districts can do

The more resource-constrained an operation is, the more critical it is to ensure your district has the tools and structures to maximize the availability and use of buses.

Modern data programs will help you minimize the number of missed stops and provide opportunities to identify efficiencies and reduce risks. Even when it comes to last-minute changes and critical responses, the right technology partner can help your district’s buses run on time.

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