Back to School

How RI school bus drivers are trained

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – John Mateo is ready to join the family business.

The 25-year-old is trying to join the ranks of the 220 bus drivers working in Providence for First Student, the Ohio-based company that is paid more than $12 million a year to transport 11,000 students to and from school each day.

If he successfully completes a rigorous training process that typically lasts between six and eight weeks, Mateo will join his father and girlfriend as a bus driver. His dad has been on the job for more than 20 years.

"I think it's going to be a perfect fit for me,” Mateo said, pointing to flexible scheduling that allows him to keep his other job selling cars.

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So what does bus driver training look like? First Student allowed Eyewitness News to interview both Mateo and his trainer, Nancy Smith. Then Mateo took control of a bus to show reporters what he learned in the weeks leading up to the beginning of school.

"We carry the most precious cargo, it's everybody's children,” Smith said. “You know you’ve got to think of it whenever they enter the bus, they're your children."

Smith has been operating school buses for 20 years but started training drivers four years ago. She said trainees start out in a classroom learning everything about how the 40-foot buses work. One fun fact she likes to explain: a single rotation of a bus tire results in the bus moving about 10 feet.

“Stopping distance versus your car is totally different,” Smith said. She said new bus drivers receive between 14 and 20 hours behind-the-wheel practice before they’re allowed to transport students.

Smith said she’s confident drivers who pass the test are well-prepared to transport children. She joked that if all drivers were forced to undergo the same training as bus operators, the roads would be safer. She said the use of cell phones while driving – which is now illegal in Rhode Island – has made it more dangerous to be on the road.

First Student trains 32 drivers in Providence each year, according to spokesperson Jen Biddinger. The company declined to provide accident totals to Eyewitness News, although it tracks incidents on a whiteboard located in its local headquarters on Ricom Way.

Records the company provided the city of Providence in 2015 show First Student filed 74 accident claims with an insurance provider during a three-year period, although it was unclear how many accidents occurred. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely when they ride a bus.

And once the day ends, drivers are trained to inspect the bus to ensure no student is left stranded. At the end of every shift, drivers are required to certify that no students are still on the bus using an electronic device. Smith said leaving a child on the bus would be grounds for immediate termination.

For his part, Mateo is confident he’s up to the challenge. School starts in Providence Sept. 4.

"You have precious cargo on the bus, but as long as you follow everything they taught you in training, everything will run smoothly,” he said.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan 


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