What's the safest mode of transportation in California?
Here's a hint: They're big, bright yellow and black, and seen most often in early morning and late afternoon hours.
The obvious answer, of course, is the school bus. Oct. 17-21 was state School Bus Safety Week, and the California Highway Patrol and local school districts are observing that milestone with ongoing efforts to educate the public on ways to make things even safer.
CHP Officer Jeffrey S. Butticci is the school bus coordinator and training officer for the Merced area patrol office. He watches over more than 400 drivers who work for 14 northern Merced County school districts.
"School buses are by far the safest mode of transportation," Butticci said. "They (school bus drivers) are top-notch, second to none, when it comes to safety. They are the most highly trained drivers in California."
Last year in the northern part of the county, there were 10 school bus collisions but none of them resulted in any type of injury, Butticci said. He's been a traffic officer for 10 years and in charge of certifying school bus drivers for about three years.
"I've never had any complaints about bus drivers," Butticci said. "It's a very demanding job. School bus drivers have a minimum of 20 hours classroom training and an additional 20 hours behind the wheel. On average, school bus drivers have 60 to 70 hours of training, and every five years they have to go through the testing procedure."
Shirley Medeiros of Chowchilla has been a school bus driver for 11 years, taking 168 Merced High School students toward El Nido every day. She also drove for the Merced City School District and Alview-Dairyland School in Chowchilla for six years.
"I like working outside, not behind a desk," Medeiros said. "I love my job and get along with all of them. It's a give-and-take, but if you respect them they will respect you back. I like interacting with students. You are always learning every day."
Like her fellow drivers, Medeiros said she has had a few close calls but no accidents. She did say that most motorists don't give school buses or big trucks the respect they deserve.
John M. Patterson, the CHP's public information officer, urges motorists to maintain a good buffer between school buses and always watch out for pedestrians near buses.
"The bottom line is they're carrying our kids, and we need to take every precaution," Patterson said. "Remember, everything a bus driver does is for the safety of the kids. Always expect a school bus to stop and don't race around them."
Perhaps the most frequent and flagrant violation bus drivers report is motorists not heeding the flashing red lights on the front and rear of buses. Motorists must stop in both directions when these lights and accompanying signs are activated.
"They (motorists) all know they should stop but they just don't," Butticci said.
Butticci said bus drivers are very responsible, very friendly and almost like your parents. "They come from all walks of life. They don't get paid a lot, but they find it very fulfilling," Butticci said. "A school bus is the number one regulated vehicle in California. They (drivers) have to maintain order with up to 84 passengers."
Billy Coane is transportation supervisor for the McSwain Union Elementary School District. A substitute driver who has driven since March 1989, Coane said driving a school bus is one of the most relaxing things he does, which also includes overseeing all maintenance operations and custodians.
"It's a big responsibility, a 40-foot bus weighing 26,000 pounds with 84 kids," Coane said. "Trying to keep kids behaved and watching for traffic can be pretty stressful."
Ironically, Coane said, many of those passing a school bus with its red lights flashing are high school students in their own cars in a hurry to get to school.
Ken Davis, 67, of Catheys Valley, has been a Merced City School District bus driver for 10 years, gaining a permanent route five years ago. He transports Franklin, Reyes, Sheehy and Stefani elementary school students along with Hoover Middle School pupils.
Davis admits he has bumped a few posts here and there but hasn't had any major accidents. "I like the exchange," Davis said. "The kids are pretty good; I just like doing it. The children are hot and cold. They are perfect some days and little devils on others. The challenge is maintaining good behavior."
Davis is chairman of the district's School Bus Safety Committee which is raising funds to acquire a robotic "Talking School Bus," a small cargo trailer to transport it as well as safety coloring books, badges and stickers for use at safety fairs and events.
The committee also is promoting a school bus safety poster contest for students of all grades. The winning student gets a $100 savings bond and a pizza party for his or her class.
Not only do motorists not heed the flashing red lights of school buses, they don't obey the sign-wielding school bus drivers who escort students across the street. He calls this situation the "Danger Zone."
Matt Sanchez is a school bus safety specialist with the state Department of Education in Sacramento. Through three-week classes, he helps train drivers who want to become school bus safety instructors, along with district transportation managers and supervisors.
"They (drivers) are the highest trained, most educated and safest drivers on the road," Sanchez said. No other state mandates the 40 hours of driver training that California does.
With school districts statewide increasing the walking distances to their campuses, Sanchez said trustees will have to weigh the cost-benefit of these frugalities with the increased risk of students being killed going to or from school.
Each year about 30 children walking, bicycling or skateboarding are killed in California; nationwide about 600 students perish in these accidents. None of this happens with school buses, Sanchez said.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@merced