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Safety first

by Gail Marsh

Asst. City Editor

SHINNSTON -- Imagine having to check under the hood of your vehicle, inspect the tires and lug nuts, and make sure every light is operational before heading out to work every day.

That's just what county school bus drivers are required to do.

I got up at 4:15 a.m. on Wednesday in order to get to the school bus terminal in Shinnston to do a ride-along with one of the county bus drivers. Monday begins National School Bus Safety Week and I wanted to see first-hand what our school bus drivers face on Harrison County's roads.

The experience I had made it worth getting up before the chickens.

My driver was Becky Barnard, a Bridgeport resident who has been driving in Harrison County for the past three years, and before that drove a school bus for Kanawha County schools. She was just finishing up her pre-trip inspection around 5:45 a.m., something she has to do any time she transports children.

"Basically, we have to check out anything that can be tampered with, from grease fittings to tires," she said, wiping off her hands.

Barnard said becoming a school bus driver was one of the most difficult, but one of the best, things she's ever done. She previously worked for a bank in Charleston and then stayed home for seven years with her children before considering the job.

"I wanted a job that would allow me to stay home with my kids in the summer, and I got to talking with girls I knew who said I should try it, so I got my CDL (commercial license) and just did it," she said.

As we waited in the dark to begin the run, I found out that the pre-trip was only a small part of what bus drivers are required to do. They have to clean their buses every day, keep their nearly 60-gallon gas tanks filled and wash the buses every week. Yes, every week.

They also take the county bus driver's course, learn CPR and first aid training and have to earn recertification and take continuing education classes every year.

We left the terminal promptly at 6:05 a.m. and headed out toward Wallace and to a turn-around just a short distance from the Wetzel County line. We waited until 6:39 a.m. to head back down the hill and make the first of 31 stops.

Barnard knows all of her passengers by name and greets many of them as they come on the bus.

She's awfully cheerful that early in the morning, while I struggled with the smell of diesel fuel, high school after-shave and the curvy, but scenic, back roads of West Virginia.

You can tell by the way she talks with the students that she really loves her job. Only once did she have to ask a high school student to turn around and sit down during the ride.

"I take a lot of pride in what I do, and there are days when the kids are bad, but I really enjoy them," she said.

At least three times during the 47-mile run we had vehicles pass the bus when Barnard had the caution lights on to signal a stop.

"I think the state ought to make everyone take a defensive driving course. Some of these people need to be taught how to drive," she said.

After stops at Lumberport Elementary, Lumberport Middle and Lincoln High schools to drop off the students, we were back at the bus terminal by 7:50 a.m. Unfortunately, my stomach was still back on Lumberport Hill.

Barnard drives one of the newer buses, equipped with a safety switch at the back of the bus. Once she parks, she has to walk the length of the 77-passenger bus to turn off the switch or an alarm will sound when she opens the door. It's a pretty neat safety feature to see that drivers check all the seats to make sure no kids have fallen asleep on the bus.

Barnard will head home after her morning run and will be back at work by 2 p.m. to work again until 4:20 p.m.

"It's a big responsibility, but I feel like I'm doing something to help take care of the kids. I look forward every day to coming to my job," she said.

Victor Gabriel, administrative assistant in charge of support services, said he feels fortunate because Barnard is just one of a large number of exceptional school bus drivers who transport more than 10,000 county students safely each school day.

"We don't have a large turnover at all. Once they become permanent drivers, I think their blood turns yellow, because they like what they do and find it very rewarding," Gabriel said.

Assistant city editor Gail Marsh can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at gmarsh@exponent-telegram.com.

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