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School bus drivers take safety seriously

As eight 5-year-olds clamored aboard Bus 31 for their ride home from morning kindergarten at South Whidbey Primary School Thursday, bus driver Sue Harris greeted each one as they headed for their seats.

A student paused to share her school paper with Harris; another showed Harris a note giving her permission to go home with a playmate.

Before starting the engine, Harris gently changed the seating arrangement for a couple of boys, noting their behavior is better when they are seated apart from one another.

This is just part of Harris' day as a bus driver for South Whidbey School District. With 21 years of bus driving under her belt, Harris holds the longevity record among the 20 regular drivers in the district. She and her buses have made it through 14 of those years without an accident.

"It takes lots of patience, a love of children, and, of course, I enjoy driving," Harris said.

Wendy Bush, a driver for 20 years and accident free for 17 of those years, agreed with Harris.

"Enjoy the company of children, have lots of patience, a sense of humor and the ability to tolerate a certain noise level, usually loud," said Bush. "I really like the kids. They help to keep me young."

Bush and Harris were honored along with other drivers at the annual transportation banquet in November. The district began keeping safety records 17 years ago in 1985, and now honors its drivers for each year of driving without incident.

Both Bush and Harris have been with the district long enough to see some significant changes in school transportation on South Whidbey.

"When I applied for a job here, there was a supervisor and a dispatcher and a couple of buses," said Harris.

"The supervisor checked my driving record, made sure my license was current, took me for a 20-minute test drive, and I was hired."

Her first day was as a substitute on the last day of school in 1981. Her previous job was driving a truck for United Parcel Service in Seattle.

Qualifying for a bus driver's position is more complicated now. State law mandates that all school bus drivers have commercial drivers' licenses, which require training and testing at the driver's expense. They must also pass a background check and regular physical exams. Defensive driving is necessary at all times.

"Patience is more for the other drivers on the road," Bush said. "It's amazing what some people will do, especially pulling out from a parking lot in front of a bus. I can't stop on a dime and give you nine cents change."

An important safety feature is the limitation of the number of students on each bus. When Harris started driving, buses would sometimes carry 128 students. Now, even though the buses are larger, they carry 60 high school students or 78 younger children, Harris said.

Even among this huge mass of kids, both Harris and Bush have favorite students.

"It's easy to become attached to the kids," said Bush. "We drive them from kindergarten through 12th grade, so we see them grow up and move on."

One of Bush's favorite memories is driving the 1991-92 South Whidbey High School boys basketball team to the district tournament in Mount Vernon.

"A mile or so before we arrived at the gym for each of their three games, the team would sing the Boyz to Men song, 'It's Hard to Say Goodbye' - not always in tune, but it was still great," Bush said.

In June 1992, she drove the seniors to the airport for their class trip to Disneyland.

"It was hard to say goodbye to that group. I cried," Bush said.

Both drivers are very aware of the impact they can have on students. The bus ride is an extension of their school day.

"We are the first person from the district a student sees in the morning and the last one before they go home. A smile and a greeting go a a long way," Harris said.

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