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Kanawha mechanics ensure students transported safely

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Raymond Huffman and a crew of four mechanics work full-time, year-round, to maintain 50 Kanawha County school buses - and that's less than a third of the county's total fleet.

Huffman is the crew leader at the Elkview school bus terminal. He and his crew are just one part of the massive undertaking that it takes to get Kanawha County's public school students to class each day.

They do regular inspections, give each bus a thorough monthly tuning and, generally, just keep all the buses in their stable in good working order. They also fill in for bus drivers when a substitute can't be procured.

A major portion of what they do revolves around safety - and that's consistent across all of the facets of student transportation.

"We try to take care of them real well," Huffman said.

Statistics show that, on the whole, bus transportation is four times safer than taking an automobile. Still, each year, education officials embark on a public safety campaign, reminding student pedestrians and drivers how to stay out of the way of one another on the road every morning and afternoon.

For students, that means watching for cars at the bus stop and looking to their bus driver before they cross the street.

"That's what we really try to teach them," said Jimmy Lacy, transportation safety and training director. "The bus driver signals for them to cross because they're up there with the mirrors and they can see everything - and that's not just for elementary kids, it's for middle and high school, too."

For drivers, bus safety means not illegally passing a stopped bus.

"If they pass that bus the driver's hands are tied - there's nothing they can do at that time to help the kids," Lacy said "People get impatient and want to pass the bus and run those lights, but it's dangerous."

It's also illegal, and offenders can face jail time: a 2010 law strengthened the punishment for drivers who pass school buses illegally. First-time offenders now face up to a $500 fine and six months in jail. Drivers who injure or kill a child while passing a bus could serve up to a decade in prison.

Lacy said officials try to keep traffic buildups caused by busing to a minimum, and that drivers make every effort to let traffic pass when it's safe. But generally, he preaches patience to drivers who are tempted to pass a stopped school bus.

"Please don't put a child in danger," he said. "You're looking at maybe a minute at a stop."

Kanawha County schools start next Friday, which might catch some drivers off guard. Buses will be on the roads two weeks earlier than during former summers.

"They're not accustomed to seeing the buses on the road, and come Friday morning, they're going to pop around the corner and see a bus there," Lacey said.

But the school system is ready for the early start. Lacy said the buses are well-equipped to handle the summer temperatures.

This is the first year that all of the buses in the regular rotation are outfitted with air-conditioning systems. At Huffman's garage, for instance, six buses would need to break down before the staff would resort to using spare buses that aren't air-conditioned.

Also new to Kanawha County Schools this year is a bus information system called "Look It Up."

Parents can access the system through the school system's website, www.kcs.kana.k12.wv.us. The system lets parents access information about bus routes and attendance areas.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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