School bus drivers are ‘safest on the road’

When it comes to safety on the roads, drivers of school buses get top marks. But even though nearly a third of residents identified school bus drivers as the safest, they also said they would like to see tougher regulations for how buses are operated.

A school bus in Najda Street in Abu Dhabi on May 26, 2014. Some survey respondents called for the introduction of exterior signs on buses that would force traffic to stop to allow children to board or get off a bus. Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // When it comes to safety on the roads, drivers of school buses get top marks.

They are perceived to be the safest road users in the UAE, according to the results of a recent nationwide survey of transport and road safety.

But even though nearly a third of residents identified school bus drivers as the safest, they also said they would like to see tougher regulations for how buses are operated. Residents said drivers should undergo more rigorous and intensive training and have a minimum of five years’ driving experience in the UAE.

Neither the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority nor Abu Dhabi’s Department of Transport requires drivers to have a minimum number of years of experience to get their School Bus Driving Permit.

However, they do require applicants to be at least 25 years old, hold a prior UAE driver’s permit, complete a school bus driver basic course and pass a theoretical test, hold a “no criminal precedents certificate” from the police, have a disease-free certificate and proof of drug and alcohol-free status and speak English and Arabic.

And even though the government does not require the drivers to have a minimum number of years’ experience, many school bus companies do.

School Transport Services (STS), which provides transportation to more than 60,000 pupils in 52 schools across the country, only hires drivers with a minimum two years’ experience of driving in the UAE.

“Every bus driver of STS is selected through a rigorous process, and after selection is put through 30 hours of behind-the-wheel training before being deployed,” a spokesman for the company said.

“The school bus drivers of STS are not only screened by STS for the background check but also need to get CID clearance and an RTA permit before they start driving a school bus in the emirate. Along with the refresher course on defensive driving, STS drivers are also trained on customer service, health and safety, student management, firefighting, emergency management, etc.”

An even greater proportion of survey respondents agreed that school bus drivers should undergo background and police checks, and strongly agreed with the idea that drivers should undergo an alcohol breathalyser test before every shift.

Bright Bus Transport, which employs 140 school bus drivers in Abu Dhabi, conducts random breathalyser tests on its drivers, said Anish Rajan, the company’s business development executive.

“We do understand that it is very important,” said Mr Rajan. “We have zero tolerance for alcohol. The fleet inspectors do check randomly. We also have an internal auditor who inspects everything.”

Survey respondents expressed little tolerance for speeding, with 90 per cent at least favouring the idea that bus drivers who exceed the speed limit should be banned.

Sixty-six per cent disagreed with the proposition that bus drivers should be female, while 93 per cent agreed that there should be a female attendant on each bus.

Similarly, 91 per cent agreed attendants should also undergo checks.

In Abu Dhabi, bus attendants are regulated by the Abu Dhabi Education Council. In Dubai, the RTA requires attendants to be at least 25 years old, hold a secondary school diploma, attend a school bus driver course and pass a theoretical test, be medically fit and of good conduct.

Survey respondents said the buses themselves should also be checked by registered authorities each week for roadworthiness and inspected monthly by a registered authority or garage. Furthermore, 94 per cent felt the buses should be equipped with cameras.

In Abu Dhabi, school buses are required to have seven CCTV cameras and be equipped with a GPS system. These requirements are not yet enforced in Dubai, but the emirate does require buses to undergo regular maintenance every 10,000 kilometres. Each school bus must also have a speed-control system installed so they cannot exceed 80kph.

Mr Rajan said he was not surprised by the survey findings that called for stricter regulations and monitoring.

“It involves the lives of children and that is the most important thing a person can ever have,” said Mr Rajan. “They should be the safest when they’re travelling on the road.”

Riddhi Tank, a 30-year-old Indian whose son is driven by bus to day care every day, said she had no complaint about school bus drivers.

“Compared to taxis, they’re very safe,” said Mrs Tank. “They are not crossing the limit. There is always an attendant there, he follows the traffic rules.”

She agreed with most of the survey’s findings, other than the question of a daily breathalyser test. “I don’t think it is required every day,” she said. “Once in a while as a random test, that’s OK, but not daily.”

Poornima Aithal, a 35-year-old Indian living in Abu Dhabi, also agreed with most of the findings, but she had one more suggestion.

She said school buses should carry an exterior stop sign, as they do in the US, which forces traffic to stop in both directions when the bus is picking up or dropping off children.

“This I have not found in Abu Dhabi. Because if the school bus stops, the traffic still goes on. Nobody is stopping in traffic. That’s a big concern,” said Mrs Aithal.