Did you know:
- During the course of the school year, Columbia County's 150 school buses will have driven a distance nearly equal to 13 trips to the moon.
- Each 15-ton bus gets an average of about six miles per gallon, the entire fleet gulping 364,750 gallons of fuel in a year.
- The price of a new Lexus sedan: $40,000. The price of a new 66-passenger school bus: $53,000.
- The average load is about 45 to 50 students per bus, the same number as two classrooms combined.
- Each one-way trip averages 30 minutes, about the time it takes to watch an episode of Spongebob Squarepants.
Before the first school bell rings, 67 percent of Columbia County's 19,321 pupils are expected to board a yellow school bus and ride to school.
It's the most reliable and safest form of transportation, said Transportation Director Shirley Doolittle.
"It has always been the safest form of transportation primarily because it's big, yellow, easy to see," she said.
During the summer months, 2,745 tons of metal and rubber sits on the school bus yard next to Columbia Middle School off Columbia Road, while each of the county's 183 buses is serviced and inspected.
Each vehicle must pass a Department of Motor Vehicles inspection before it is deemed roadworthy.
"Everyone always asks me what we do during the summer, but we service the system's buses, trucks and trailers to make sure everything's taken care of, repaired and in top shape," Doolittle said.
This year, Columbia County will have 150 bus routes, 143 route drivers and 18 bus assistants. Seven more of those positions are vacant at this time. Seven bus assistants will be driving regular routes this year, while others fill in for route drivers during absences.
There are 30 routes alone to transport special-needs students in 48 passenger buses.
Thirty-six of the buses in the fleet are at least 10 years old. Ideally, the older buses are uses as spares, pressed into service only when mechanical problems with others make it necessary, Doolittle said. The system purchased nine new buses this year: five new 66-passenger buses which cost $53,000 and four 48-passenger buses used to haul special-education pupils which cost $68,000 each. The smaller buses are air-conditioned because of the special medical needs of many of those children.
Other than innovations such as automatic transmissions, power steering, power brakes and tinted windows, buses have changed little over the years. If anything has changed, it's the awareness of safety issues surrounding the bus and bus stops.
"When I rode a bus in elementary and junior high school, it was absolutely safe to walk any distance to a bus stop," Doolittle said. "Walking half a mile to a bus stop was no big deal."
But things have changed. On April 22, a man tried to entice a 10-year-old Euchee Creek Elementary School pupil into his car while the boy waited at his bus stop.
"Now we are very cautious children don't walk any distance," Doolittle said. "We have to consider the age of the child, where they are walking. We are more conscious of safety because we have to be."
Another person has been hired at the transportation department to track bus driver training, keep accurate records and make sure each driver is meeting training requirements before hitting the road.
"We've always had a good safety program, but we didn't have anybody to keep up with where everybody was with it," Doolittle said.
Ideally, a bus can fit three elementary-school pupils per seat and two middle- and high-school pupils per seat. By law, a bus can't be 20 percent over capacity, and Columbia County, she said, does not like to have pupils standing.
Then there are band instruments (nothing bigger than a trombone is allowed) and backpacks.
But one size does not fit all.
"If you've got a 250-pound football player, he is not going to be able to share a seat," Doolittle said.
The opening of each school year always brings uncertainty. The buses are ready and the routes have been plotted, but the school system never knows what to expect when the doors of the yellow buses open.
"You could have a family move out and one move in with five children, all riding the bus. You don't know what to totally expect until school starts," Doolittle said.
Meet your bus driver at your school's open house or talk to transportation officials at the Back to School Festival on Saturday at Evans High School from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will also be bus safety demonstrations at the festival.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.