Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Counterpoint. A guest post defending Ottawa's School Bus Safety Awareness Day

I don't usually use guest posts, but I received a thoughtful and heartfelt counterpoint to my arguments about the utility of School Bus Safety Awareness Day.

The guest poster is Kathleen Both, the owner of a local school bus company. Now I certainly don't see eye to eye with Kathleen and still believe that the lessons taught on School Bus Safety Awareness day, while undoubtedly important, are also undoubtedly straightforward and can certainly be taught at school rather than be served up by McDonald's.

Before I get to her letter, she also updated me on some additional school bus related deaths.

In addition to the 3 deaths that I detailed, Kathleen provided me with details of 8 more. Of those 8, five occurred where kids bent over to pick something up in front of the bus and were subsequently killed when the bus pulled away, 2 were killed by cars that didn't stop for the school bus and 1 was due to a bus being rear ended. So while it would certainly seem quite reasonable, and in fact important, that kids be repeatedly taught to look both ways before crossing the street and to not pick anything up from the ground in front of a school bus, I still don't see the need for that teaching to require any special events sponsored by a hungry advertiser.

Ultimately reading her post I was saddened to learn how the Ottawa School Board has seemingly taken what began as a thoughtful proactive program meant to help teach kids about school bus safety, and probably more importantly reduce their fears, and instead co-opted it as a marketing opportunity for McDonald's. I don't think the Ottawa School Board, regardless of finances, should be selling access to our children to the highest bidder, and while I do realize we live in a dollars and cents world, if the choice was between having this day run by McDonald's versus canning the day and instead upping school bus safety awareness at school, my vote would be for the latter.

Here's her post:

I am writing to you to express my disappointment in your complete dismissal of a program that has been extremely beneficial for the past 19 years. Before publishing such derogatory comments, a little research should have been in order to fully appreciate the School Bus Safety Awareness Day, its history, rationale, objectives and goals.

In the late 1980’s there were several fatalities of young children involving school buses in the Ottawa area. Something I’m sure young parents today are unaware of, but something that can never be forgotten by anyone in the school bus industry, or any parent of a child that age at that time.

In 1990, my father, owner of M.L. Bradley Ltd., attended a school bus convention in the Kitchener/Waterloo area where he learned of a “First Time Rider” program hosted by a local independent operator. Dad thought the idea was great and with the vision of creating the safest environment possible for our passengers, he decided to host a similar program. At that time, four year old kindergarten was also being introduced to many schools resulting in twice as many preschoolers on the bus. Dad had a saying, one we repeat to our drivers on a regular basis, to always remember that “Children are carefree, not careless.”

The first annual “School Bus Safety Awareness Day” was held in our garage at M.L. Bradley Ltd. in downtown Navan in August 1991. With very limited advertisement in the East end, we hosted close to 600 people in our small wash bay. The program was identical to the one today and was designed to appeal to all learning styles...auditory, visual, and most importantly, practical. Registration (to put the name on the certificate), video of “Winnie the Pooh,” bus ride with a chance to “practice” safely crossing the road, a library of safety information, and an opportunity to spend all the time necessary to feel comfortable on a stationary bus. We absorbed all of the costs and our drivers graciously donated their time and expertise. All of the school board officials were in attendance and were quite intrigued by the concept. Local newspapers praised our efforts and parents appreciated the opportunity to introduce their youngsters to the bus. The only disappointment was that Dad, terminally ill, did not get to witness his initiative.

The school boards recognizing the effectiveness of this program are to be commended for their proactive approach in adopting the School Bus Safety Awareness Day for the past 19 summers. I sat on a committee with other bus operators and school board officials that planned and polished details that involved, at that time, coordinating 5 school boards and numerous school bus operators. Everyone worked together towards a common goal ...improving the safety of children on the bus. We designed logos and printed our own colouring books all with unbiased images of dinosaurs. The drivers’ reward for volunteering for the day was receiving a ball cap and t-shirt with the dinosaur logo.....and the kids and parents came....by the thousands....and yes, they were served an optional snack.

Some dedicated, responsible parents teach their young ones the proper way to ride a bus. However, a few extra reminders and a priceless opportunity to actually practice and be guided in the proper way to cross the road, an unforgettable jingle about bus safety, led by “Winnie the Pooh” has gone a long way for many. Not only do children and parents (some of whom have never been on a school bus themselves) get safety reminders, but the day also serves to alleviate the stress for thousands. There are many, many, many children who are anxious and fear leaving their home on the first day of school. The “Safety Awareness Day” provides an opportunity to get rid of those first day jitters and realize that the big yellow machine is not going to swallow them up. The drivers and school board officials who are present to answer parents’ questions help to alleviate stress felt by adults in sending their kids off to school for the first time.

School bus operators are not paid for the day but provide vehicles, gas and drivers and pay them out of their own pockets. This is a huge expense today given the cutbacks in the industry however; all school bus operators recognize the value and often are able to identify who has attended the safety awareness day. Similarly, the school boards open their buildings to host the event and in the past several years, have economically accepted the support of McDonald’s to alleviate some of the costs by providing the art work for all the handout material (placemats, pamphlets, brochures, certificates). They also provide muffins and coffee for the volunteers and drivers and lunch for them in addition to providing the attendees optional orange drink, cookies, vouchers, coffee for the parents, napkins, cups sugar etc.

I was formerly an elementary school teacher. At the request of my Dad, I got my bus license when I was off having a child and I drove a loaded bus once. When I returned, I vowed to never, ever do that again. It is a very difficult, thankless, stressful job that carries with it an incredible amount of responsibility with very low pay. I wish that I had read about your impression prior to the first day of school. I would have invited you to go for a ride...perhaps on a bus with three school runs....with terrified 3 year olds who speak little English but who remember to wait for a hand signal from a driver, who can sing “Winnie’s” song, or who remember not to not run across the road to show their parents their chocolate pudding finger painting. All things that you hoped they had learned or were reminded of by our drivers and Winnie the Pooh. Or perhaps you would have appreciated a ride home where there’s no one waiting, or where a child has inadvertently been put on the wrong bus, or where there are 20 children disembarking all at once and a car has crossed through your lights. Maybe you would appreciate the efforts and understand why we started this day.

Instead, unfortunately, you seem to be caught up in a very minute portion of the day. “School Bus Safety Awareness Day” is voluntary for students and parents as is the drink and snack. Facts show that school bus safety has improved since 1991 inception of the day. Maybe a few of the parents that sadly lost a child to a regrettable school bus accident would have given the world for such a program…including the fast food.

Remember, children are carefree, not careless.

Kathleen Both
Owner, M.L. Bradley Ltd.