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Common Worst Nightmare Links School Bus Drivers

Fatal Crash Highlights an 'Awesome Responsibility'

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page B05

In her 11 years driving a school bus, Linda Farbry woke every morning and said the same prayer: "Please, don't let anything happen to my bus today." She used to think: You pass safety training. You check your mirrors. You drive carefully. But anything can happen. That driver, bloodied and screaming by the side of the road in Arlington on Monday? That could have been you.

Your bus. Your route. Your kids.

"There are times when fate steps in," she said yesterday, "And there's no option -- even with all the best training in the world."

News that a school bus and a garbage truck collided Monday morning with enough force to kill a child and crush the steel-reinforced bus hit school bus drivers hard. At the Fairfax County school district's bus depot in Newington, where drivers often know each other only by bus numbers, they gathered here and there to reconstruct the accident, trying to figure out what happened and who was at fault.

But beneath the chatter, many said there was a familiar knot in the stomach. "This is your worst nightmare," said driver Helen Resh, 44. The truth is, just about every bus driver has had a close call.

"I don't think a day passes when a driver doesn't catch their breath and say, 'Holy moly, that could have been bad,' " Farbry said, as bright yellow bus after bright yellow bus pulled onto the lot after safely ferrying thousands of students to school.

Farbry is now director of transportation for Fairfax County public schools, which has one of the largest school bus systems in the country. These days, she is responsible for 1,537 buses, 1,117 drivers and 105,000 students traveling more than 2,700 miles every day.

"It's like planning the D-Day invasion every day," one driver remarked.

With all those moving parts, there are about 700 accidents a year. None has been fatal. Many are no worse than bus mirrors scraping branches or mailboxes.

These days, Farbry's daily morning prayer has only gotten bigger. "Now I pray that nothing happens to any of my buses," she said.

The lot was filled with the sound of bus drivers pumping out the last of the air in their brakes with a chuff, chuff, chuff -- one of myriad safety regulations. Driver Tina Doley, 41, a "mentor" driver, helped a newer driver with a mirror check. She walked around the bus to make sure all five mirrors were positioned correctly, a new safety procedure this year.

"It's hard for me to watch an accident like the one in Arlington," Doley said. "I think it's because I have four children. Driving is not a responsibility I take lightly."

Doley, like Farbry and several other drivers, began driving a school bus as a young mother. She wanted to work and be with her kids at the same time. Fairfax, like some other jurisdictions, allows bus drivers to bring their children on their routes.

Nearby, Stuart Jefferson, 48, carefully squeegeed his front windshield and fueled up. Jefferson is retired from his construction company and repairs watches between his morning and afternoon bus runs. He's the kind of retiree that Fairfax, with its constant driver shortage, wants to attract, even offering $500 signing bonuses and dangling the possibility of leisurely hours of midday golf.

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