Waiting behind buses stacked up at the railroad tracks at Conifer Boulevard and Highway 99W in north Corvallis one day last week gave me time to reflect on the whole school transportation experience.
Forty-plus years ago, I was one of the millions of kids who got to school on foot.
I’d have my cinnamon toast and coffee — Mom had been a farm kid, so coffee was just something anyone could drink if he wanted to — grab the Velveeta cheese sandwich, potato chips, apple and cookies she’d packed for me, and head out the door, by myself.
Walking to school seemed a perfectly natural thing in the 1970s, before parents decided the world was too dangerous for 10-year-olds to cover a few blocks on their own. But nothing terribly frightening ever happened — even for a kid like me who tended toward nervousness.
Things did take on a somewhat scarier tone when I left grade school for junior high, which was a few miles across town and thus necessitated getting there and back via bus; of the roughly 800 seventh- and eighth-graders in our school, I’m guessing that 700 of them rode a bus, with 90 walking or bicycling and 10 outliers getting a lift from a parent.
The transportation aspect of the bus trips caused me no alarm, but simply being a seventh-grader on a vehicle jam-packed with other kids, including a collection of malevolent eighth-graders, could be relatively terrifying.
Prior to junior high, my only real school bus experience had come via two or three annual field trips. Popular destinations for Portland-area school kids were such varied locales as Pittock Mansion, Oaks Amusement Park, Alpenrose Dairy, Fort Vancouver, a fossil dig site near Vernonia, and the Trojan nuclear power plant.
On these trips, when iPods and tablets existed only in a few forward thinkers’ imaginations, we passed the time in a way that probably wouldn’t be allowed today: by singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
As someone who didn’t own a car until college — a 1969 Volkswagen that I bought from my brother for $250 — I took the bus at least 90 percent of the time during high school, and one of those rides produced the only really eventful occurrence of my bus days.
Shooting the breeze in the back seat one morning on McLoughlin Boulevard, the conversation was halted by a significant jolt: We’d been rear-ended by another school bus.
Peeling ourselves off the seat backs we’d been hurled into, we turned to look at the offending bus, whose driver wore a pained, helpless look. Luckily, no one was hurt, and there was minimal if any vehicle damage, so the upshot for all involved was a story to recount decades hence.
Then as now, buses did not feature seat belts; in addition to being cost prohibitive and a logistical nightmare, seat belts on school buses have been shown not to enhance safety. The design of the buses and the seats makes them safe enough already, and studies indicate school buses are statistically the safest way to travel, roughly 40 times safer than riding in a car.
Which brings us back to Conifer and 99W ...
I understand the logic of having school bus drivers stop, open the door and peer down the tracks before proceeding. But at that particular location — the tracks cross Conifer just a few feet east of the highway — I almost wonder if the stopped buses aren’t at more risk from 99W traffic than they are from trains.
Either way, do your part to keep the kids on those buses safe, there and everywhere. Be cautious, be patient, and remember those flashing yellow and red lights are just like a traffic signal.
If every school bus rider makes it through his school bus riding career without any accident stories to tell, that’s a good thing.