Enjoying a drive along an open stretch of road near my home in Fort Washington yesterday, I saw an oncoming school bus with warning lights flashing and those mechanical stop signs emerging from the sides.
Usually, I'll quietly curse my bad luck when this happens and may do so louder if the schoolkids take too long getting on or off the bus. This time, though, I just waited, patiently. The school bus crash Monday in Arlington, which took the life of Lilibeth Gomez, 9, and injured 14 of her schoolmates, was still on my mind.
I wondered if other motorists were approaching school buses with a more sympathetic attitude, so I visited a school bus lot near Friendly High School in Prince George's County to find out.
"We're certainly more conscious of what's going on -- not that we weren't already," said Eulette Hawkins, a Prince George's school bus driver for 16 years. Whether motorists will be more considerate remains to be seen, but Hawkins said that "as far as how other drivers treat us, it's worse now than ever."
A group of drivers was gathered around an outdoor table, having just completed their morning runs; several nodded their heads in agreement.
"There are people on the road who have no respect for school buses," said G.B. Wilson, a driver for 10 years. "As soon as they see the stop sign, they'll speed up, zoom right past the bus -- without any regard for the safety of the children trying to cross the street. I've seen people pass me going up a hill -- don't know what's coming over the hill -- just to keep from getting stuck behind a school bus."
And the dangers they face aren't just on the road.
"If we could show some of these parents a videotape of how their children behave on these buses, they'd be shocked," said Jeff Butler, a driver for four years.
The drivers sounded as if they could spend hours talking about the many obstacles they encounter in a day's work. But they seemed to feel that nothing truly exonerates them when a school bus is involved in a crash.
"Whenever there is a bus accident, the first person Joe Public is going to look at is us -- the bus driver," Hawkins said. "You may have 60 kids on a bus making a furor, lots of noise, sometimes fighting, and all of that other stuff out on the road, but for God sake don't let anything happen to those kids."
So it was understandable when the subject shifted to defensive driving skills, with veteran operators sharing tips with their less experienced colleagues.
"What I want to know is how it happened," said Earl Pinkney, who started driving a school bus four months ago. "When a school bus gets hit head-on by a garbage truck, that's . . . that's incredible."
Angela Adams, a driver for five years, said: "It's important to remember just how sluggish some of these buses are. They have a very slow takeoff. So you have to be extra cautious before going through an intersection, especially making left turns. There may be only two cars ahead of you, but you still might not be able to make the green light. You shouldn't even stick your nose out past that white line until you are absolutely certain that you can clear the intersection."
Gloria Smith had just returned after driving a busload of special education students from southern Prince George's to Rockville. "Bumper to bumper all the way," she said with a sigh. "Everybody doesn't have the temperament for this."
Ella Joyner, who helps children get on and off Smith's bus and escorts them across streets, had not said a word. "It's just too sad," she finally explained. "I have grandchildren who take the bus to school. The child that died, there but for the grace of God go one of mine."
As I departed, a caravan of school buses was headed back to the parking lot, but this time no flashing lights were necessary to get me to stop. The look of relief on the faces of drivers who'd gotten the job done was enough to give me pause.