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Remarks at National Association of Pupil Transportation Annual Summit, Cincinnati, Ohio
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Association of Pupil Transportation Annual Summit, Cincinnati, Ohio

Thank you, Mike (Martin) for that warm welcome.

At the NTSB we investigate transportation accidents, and we often see tragic outcomes. We make recommendations stemming from our accident investigations to prevent future accidents. But, today, instead of focusing on failures, I'd like to focus on what makes you so successful. On your agenda you are looking at technology, driving excellence, and things like integrity in tough budgeting.

Your safety record … is unequalled. School buses are the safest form of mass transit because of the commitment of all of the people who perform maintenance, dispatch, inspect, and train drivers to operate the nation's largest and safest transportation system. For everyone safety is the highest priority – that isn't just lip service either.

You are so large you could line up all 480,000 U.S. school buses end to end - with a danger zone in between, of course - and stretch from Cincinnati to San Francisco. And, the 26 million students you transport safely every school day - that adds up to about 10 billion passenger trips a year - or one-and-a-half times the world's population!

This is why I am especially delighted to participate in my first NAPT Annual Summit. I have reserved plenty of time at the end for Q&A to address accident investigations and safety issues on your mind, but for now let me say a few words to salute what you do and how you do it.

Last week, I spent a couple of hours at our society's version of the community center, also known as YouTube, and watched scores of videos featuring school buses. I saw videos inside the bus, videos of accidents, videos of bus drivers in training, but, most of all, I watched videos of the first day of school memories for families in cities, suburbs, and rural communities. I watched special needs children being patiently secured in five-point harnesses, and bus drivers posing for pictures.

What is the same in every video is that the parents just entrusted their most important possessions in the world to the school transportation system. I have three sons. During the school year, our lives revolve around getting to the bus stop in the morning and making sure that someone is there when my kindergartener gets off the bus in the afternoon.

There have been tears (more from parents than children) and celebrations at our bus stop. That bus stop really is the intersection where families in our neighborhood come together. But again, the common denominator is that we all rely on you to keep our children safe. And you do.

Miss Debbie drives one of the buses that transport my boys. I appreciate what she does, because I know how important it is, but I also know it isn't easy.

As Mike mentioned, I have a commercial driver's license with passenger, school bus, and air brake endorsements and I am a certified child passenger safety technician. It really helps in my job at the Safety Board, which involves reviewing accident reports and developing safety recommendations, to have a "boots on the ground" perspective. So I really value the opportunity to see firsthand how school buses are made and what it takes to drive a bus.

At the Bluebird factory, you can see a bus built more than 60 years ago that is still that familiar school bus yellow. Even though the color, size, and shape are familiar, the buses like those here in the exhibit hall, which will transport my kids in the future, boast many safety improvements over the bus that took my parents to school.

Similarly, I took school bus driver training in Fairfax County, Virginia, more than five years ago, so I could better understand the challenges of operating a commercial vehicle. My over-the-road training took place in the winter. My classroom and behind-the-wheel training really opened my eyes to just how much knowledge and effort it takes to be a good bus driver.

Of course, safe transportation is paramount, but to become a driver you also had to learn CPR and first aid and be able to spot the signs of child abuse and address violent behaviors on the bus. More than a driver with an excellent safety record, you are also teachers, nurses, counselors, and authority figures.

I commend you and NAPT for the work you are doing on bullying. There is so much more to driving a school bus than driving. But, it's your ability to be good at the "so much more" that makes you able to drive safely.

Most people have no idea what it takes to operate a safe, efficient, and reliable pupil transportation program or how much planning, coordination, training, and logistics goes into it. And, how much dedication.

It's your commitment to safety - as individuals and as organizations - that produces such an outstanding safety record. Because of your work designating safe routes and bus stop locations, training and supervising drivers, and maintaining the vehicles in top condition, school bus accidents are rare. And, when they do happen, because of your commitment to safety, they rarely involve fatalities to students on board. This underscores the importance of education and outreach on bus safety and danger zones — the theme of last week's National School Bus Safety Week.

At the Safety Board, we look at safety across all modes of transportation - highway, rail, marine, aviation, and even pipelines. We see firsthand the catastrophes that can happen - the lives lost - when an organization and an industry do not have a safety culture.

There are a lot of fancy definitions of "safety culture." But, this is one of the best and the simplest. "Safety culture is how the organization behaves when no one is watching."

You rarely have someone watching in those early hours in the bus barn, or when your passengers are getting off and you make sure they are safely out of harm's way, and as you patiently wait for aggressive drivers to pass.

Other forms of transportation could learn a lot about safety culture from you. You get it about safety.

And, you get it about always getting better. That's a key attribute of having a safety culture. Always improving. That's what you do with your training, with your experience, and with your participation here at the Annual Summit.

When my oldest went to kindergarten, it was not going to school that he was excited about, but about riding the bus to get there. My boys love the Scholastic Magic School Bus books and videos.

And, with your professionalism, your commitment to safety, and all that you do for our young people, it is not Ms. Frizzle and her bus that is magical. It is you. You are the magicians who operate 480,000 magic school buses that transport our children safely day in and day out - at the same time you magically help our children learn so much about themselves and each other along the way.

Now, I'd like to ask you to think about how you are a part of life's most important moments by reminding you of the movie Forrest Gump. The movie starts with young Forrest and his momma waiting for the bus on the first day of kindergarten. It shows the bus driver - Dorothy Harris - and Forrest when he was a child and first met his Jenny. And, then, we fast-forward to the ending and watch Dorothy Harris pick up Forrest Junior to take him to school.

That continuity is a wonderful way to celebrate your accomplishments in pupil transportation.

Thank you all for what you do for our children and their safety. I salute you.