NTSB Reminds School Bus Drivers to be Focused and Medically Fit for Duty

By Thomas E. Zoeller, Managing Director

“Raise your hand if you don’t use caution when operating your vehicle.”

Are you raising your hand?

Probably not.

Photo of NTSB Medical Officer Dr. Mary Pat McKay presenting
NTSB Medical Officer Dr. Mary Pat McKay speaking to Loudoun County, Virginia, school bus drivers.

And neither did any of the nearly 700 Loudoun County, Virginia, school bus drivers earlier this week when NTSB Medical Officer Dr. Mary Pat McKay asked this of them.

The point she was making was that most drivers believe they are fit to drive and capable of multi-tasking while driving if need be. But Dr. McKay’s message to bus drivers, who carry a most precious cargo, was that, while we think we may be ready to hit the roads, we may not always be at our best.

She then went on to explain that the labels on over-the-counter and prescription medications too often go unread. Consider, for example, one such warning on the box of an allergy medicine: “Use caution when operating machinery or driving a motor vehicle.”

At the county’s annual back-to-school training event for bus drivers and attendants, Dr. McKay and NTSB Safety Advocates Nicholas Worrell and Stephanie Shaw emphasized the importance of staying medically fit for duty and also reminded them about the dangers of driving distracted.

Dr. McKay presented results from an NTSB study on fatally injured pilots, which showed a significant increase in positive toxicology findings for potentially impairing medications. One big surprise was the increasing use of sedating over-the-counter medicines, such as cold remedies, allergy treatments, and sleep aids.

Each bus driver must ensure he or she is medically fit for work each day; this means being awake and alert and ready to perform in as safe a manner as possible, she said. This also means ensuring that a temporary illness or new medical condition—as well as the treatment of such conditions—will not impair the driver’s perception, judgment, or response time. Dr. McKay urged the drivers to discuss their important job duties with their healthcare providers, ask about the risks any new medications might pose to safe driving, and carefully read the warnings on ALL medications, regardless of whether they are prescribed or over the counter. She emphasized the importance of looking for warnings about effects like sleepiness, drowsiness, or difficulty with coordination.

NTSB Safety Advocate Nicholas Worrell speaking to the Loudoun County, Virginia, school bus drivers.
NTSB Safety Advocate Nicholas Worrell speaking to the Loudoun County, Virginia, school bus drivers.

Most of these medications are not safe to take when driving a school bus, or any vehicle, for that matter—and there is often an alternative with fewer side effects.

Bus drivers also must ensure they remain focused and avoid the temptation of distraction. Advocates Worrell and Shaw discussed specific highway and school bus accidents caused by distracted drivers.

“Distraction does not just include portable electronic devices, and it does not go away just because you have a hands-free headset,” Worrell said. Distraction takes many forms: cognitive (your eyes are on the road but not your thoughts); manual (physically engaged in something other than driving); visual (looking elsewhere instead of where you need to be looking); and auditory (when sounds distract).

School bus drivers bear a heavy responsibility and might experience any one of these types of distractions on any given day: thinking about the next stop prior to getting there, looking too long in the rearview mirror as they monitor kids for trouble, loud talking and noises, trying to discipline kids while driving. These are all potential distractions challenging school bus drivers.

Despite all the challenges school bus drivers face, it’s important to note that school buses are still the safest vehicles on the roads. That’s just one of the reminders the NTSB will be bringing to Loudoun County parents and the general public next week when it hosts a press event and safety demonstrations in coordination with Loudoun County Public Schools, Youth of Virginia Speak Out, Safe Kids Fairfax County, Virginia Safe Routes to School, and the Loudon County Sheriff’s Office. Students who walk, bicycle, drive, or are driven to school also need to know how to do so as safely as possible.

The NTSB message to school bus drivers is to go to work fit for duty, to operate with caution all the time, and to stay focused on the driving task.

The same message can save lives in the family car.

The issues of distracted driving and medical fitness for duty are on the NTSB’s 2015 Most Wanted List of safety improvements. For more information, visit Disconnect from Deadly Distractions and Require Medical Fitness for Duty.

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