The unsung profession: School bus drivers

February 28, 2019

BYRON — Byron bus driver Mickey Reed had just dropped off a group of grade-school students and was watching them cross the street when he saw a car coming from a block away.

It wasn’t stopping or slowing down. It came on, oblivious to the bus’s red flashing lights and extended stop sign. Realizing the car wasn’t going to stop, Reed began honking his horn in hopes of alerting either the driver or the students and averting a tragedy.

It was a near-miss. The car side-swiped a kindergarten girl and knocked her to the ground as she was about to cross the street. Reed says his honking may have helped alert the girl.

The girl got up and then sat back down again before getting up again. Reed later learned that the girl’s foot had been rolled over by a tire.

In 24 years of being a school bus driver, Reed, 62, had seen cars blow past stop arms before but had never witnessed such a close call.

“I’ve had drivers go though my stop arms, but the children hadn’t been out (of the bus) or crossing the street,” he said about the incident that happened last November.

Today, Reed is to speak at the 3rd annual Bus Drivers Appreciation Day in Minneapolis. In this age of distracted drivers, Reed hopes his story helps instill an extra caution in drivers.

The I-35W bridge in Minneapolis was lit yellow Tuesday evening and this morning in honor of bus drivers, who transport more than 760,000 students each day across the state.

The day was created to recognize a profession that is often overlooked and taken for granted. The brainchild of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association and Minnesota Association of Pupil Transportation, the event encourages school leaders, parents and students to celebrate bus drivers.

Motorists ignoring buses’ stop signs has been a problem for many years, Lt. Brian Reu of the Minnesota State Patrol said.

Every April for nearly a decade, the State Patrol has asked school bus drivers to report every stop arm violation they encounter on a specific day. Last year, nearly 3,000 bus drivers reported almost 600 violations with people going by their school buses with the stop arm out, Reu said.

In 2017, the Legislature hiked the fine for drivers who fall to stop for school buses to $500 from $300. Citations for stop-arm violations have been declining, according to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, from 1,573 in 2014 to 1,164 in 2018.

“Motorists who fail to yield to school buses that have their stop-arms extended and flashing lights activated are endangering our children,” Reu said. “Even one driver failing to yield for a school bus is one too many.”

A former Rochester firefighter, Reed began driving bus part-time in the 1990s when his kids were in school, taking teams to and from sporting events. He continued driving after his kids graduated. When he retired from firefighting, he began working full-time as a bus driver. This year is his sixth year.

“They’re always looking for drivers,” Reed said.

His wife, Jan, taught in Byron schools for 30 years and was recently elected to the Byron School Board.

“I’m living with the boss now,” Reed quipped.

Byron employs about a dozen bus drivers, and Reed says he hears stories from colleagues of motorists disregarding bus stop signs “a couple of times a month and sometimes a couple of times a day.”

Reed says he has become a more cautious driver since the incident occurred three months ago. If his bus’s stop arm is out and he sees a car approaching, he doesn’t let his kids out of the bus until he is convinced the vehicle has stopped.

“My kids aren’t leaving the bus until I see people stopped,” Reed said. “It may be seconds or half a minute or a minute to make sure they’re stopped and stay stopped. I can’t trust anybody out there.”