UniteGPS – Seeing how New Jersey lawmakers recently drafted a bill to allow 18-year-olds behind the wheel of school buses, it may only be a matter of time until other states start to pursue similar legislative changes. Yet Louisiana transit leaders are wary about the potential legal and safety complications based on the proposal.

Louisiana transit leaders

On March 24 UniteGPS CEO Chris Bunnell spoke at the Louisiana Transportation Directors Conference where he discussed the idea of reintroducing a former 1950s policy allowing high school students to operate buses. A UniteGPS member then followed up with past and former conference attendants to hear their opinions about changing the age requirements.

As you’re about to read, while not exactly radical or unrealistic, all of these individuals were hesitant about placing such responsibility on teenagers’ shoulders.

Insurance issues according to Louisiana transit leaders

Like other states, Louisiana technically allows 18-year-olds to obtain a CDL. What’s preventing them from legally driving school buses, however, is specific legislation enforcing the minimum age to 21. Moreover, there is a slew of insurance and liability dilemmas, such as those held by Julie Ginart.

“My number one concern would be how expensive insurance is for that age group,” said the transportation supervisor from St. Bernard Parish Public Schools in a recent message to UniteGPS. “If something were to happen on that bus, our liability would be more than it is with current drivers, who have to be 21 years or older.”

Also attesting to the potential legal obstacles is Dave Shultz, a retired transportation consultant in Louisiana who worked closely with school districts and contract carriers from across the country.

“You’re never going to get a contract carrier’s insurance company to ensure an 18-year-old driving a bus,” said Shultz in a recent phone interview. He began driving school buses in 1977 while studying at San Diego State University. In his opinion, it’s unlikely the legislation will change precedence. 

“What, you’re going to have to do it state by state? I don’t know that anybody can make an insurance company cover someone. How do you say to an insurance company, ‘now we’re going to legislate, you have to cover an 18-year-old?’”

Scheduling conflicts for high schoolers

While UniteGPS still supports its petition for student bus driver programs as a means to remedy the hiring shortage, Shultz also says this is unlikely to happen. If these were to hypothetically exist, it would be a short-lived experience for most.

“If you’re going to have a high schooler or somebody like that (drive a school bus), they’re not going to be 18,” said Shultz. “They’re probably going to be between 16 and 17, and you’re probably only going to get them for one year, even if you get that regulation changed.”

Additionally, maintaining both school and work schedules would be challenging for high school students. At the end of the day, the student bus driver could end up missing class.

“Typically, let’s say if you’re in a populated area, you’ve got staggered start times, so you can reuse those buses two or three times each shift. Well, if you’ve got a high schooler driving a bus and he’s got to go to school, he’s not going to be able to do those other trips. He’s not going to be able to get out early enough to take kids home before the second tier goes.”

As far as allowing 18-year-olds to become school drivers in places like New Jersey, Shultz contends that this initiative ultimately won’t benefit high schoolers. Rather, it could be a practical work opportunity for college students to pursue CDL-related jobs.

“What (the New Jersey legislation) may end up doing is setting up something where you can start to recruit from a community college where we can get college students to drive,” added Shultz.

Behavioral issues on school buses

Another prominent reservation among Louisiana transit leaders about allowing 18-year-olds to drive school buses is behavior. For Kathy Gonzalez, a retired supervisor of transportation at St. Bernard Parish Public Schools, student discipline is one of the greatest deterrents against allowing teens to drive a bus. 

“High school students trying to discipline peers would be difficult,” said Gonzalez over e-mail. “There is something to be said for experience, and high school students would enter the bus without it.”

Director of Transportation Dave Hadden at Bossier Parish Schools concurs. He told UniteGPS that he employs 216 full-time drivers yet fewer than 10 percent of the staff is 35-years-old or younger. In his opinion, the local school board would likely not hire 18-21-year-olds even if it were approved by the FMCSA.

“Driving a school bus is one thing but managing students is the most difficult part of the job,” said the official in recent e-mail correspondence. “We find that drivers in their 20s and 30s have a difficult time doing this. They just don’t know discipline strategies to influence positive behavior on school buses.”

Louisiana transit leaders realize rural kid’s potential

Despite different opinions about maturity levels and ability to manage behavior on school buses, practically every Louisiana transit leader would agree that students from agricultural backgrounds sometimes have a natural affinity for driving school buses. This is why rural school districts have always gravitated more towards allowing teenagers to drive school buses.

“There certainly are students who live and work on farms driving 18 wheelers, quarter-million-dollar tractors, half-million-dollar combines, and even a few certified pilots,” said Larry Boyt, transportation official at West Carroll Parish School Board, in another recent e-mail correspondence.

“Within my rural district of about 1,800 students, I can think of at least a half dozen students capable of safely operating a school bus, possibly even better than some of my certified drivers because they have grown up and worked on similar equipment from bumper to bumper.”