Opinion

Hey CMS: Don’t let the teenager drive the bus!

As recently as the 1980s, school districts across the Carolinas employed high school juniors and seniors as drivers.
As recently as the 1980s, school districts across the Carolinas employed high school juniors and seniors as drivers. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Every so often, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials find themselves with a shortage of bus drivers, our readers raise their hand with a blast from the past. So it was this month, with CMS facing a driver crunch that has resulted in 5,000-6,000 students getting home at least 15 minutes late each day. The solution, says letter writer Jim Williams, is already on school property.

“In the not-too-distant past, we did not have a bus driver shortage,” Williams wrote. “In many places, buses were driven by responsible high school juniors and seniors.”

It’s true. Forum editor Nancy Webb found that as recently as 1985, 39 percent of CMS’s 640 bus drivers were students. The practice had been going on for 50 years, in fact, not only in Charlotte but across North and South Carolina.

If that’s surprising to you, here’s something that probably won’t be: Although students made up 39 percent of CMS bus drivers then, they were involved in 64 percent of school bus accidents the previous year. That’s why in 1985, Superintendent Jay M. Robinson announced he was phasing out teen bus drivers. He was the first N.C. superintendent to say so.

Three years later, however, the U.S. Labor Department told everyone to cut it out. The agency had been giving annual exemptions for drivers under 18 to North Carolina and South Carolina, but in January 1988, a 4-year-old boy in West Columbia, SC, was run over and killed by a 17-year-old bus driver who had a previous speeding ticket.

As for the current driver issues, CMS is taking a smart approach and boosting bus driver starting pay from $12.87 to $15 an hour, with higher-paid drivers getting a 50-cent hourly bump, the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms reports. So no, the district won’t let the teenager drive the bus. (That headline, though — how could we pass it up?)

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