ORIENTAL – The school bus system in North Carolina celebrated its 100th birthday on Tuesday and, just in case you wondered, it all started right here in this sleepy little fishing town in 1917.
To celebrate, the Governor’s Highway Safety Program brought speakers from Raleigh, a 2018 school bus from Carteret County and a 1931 school bus from Iredell County to Oriental to speak and display, within sight of the town’s 1917 school.
Also along for the ride – so to speak – was a blown-up photo or Oriental’s original bus (the bus itself is long gone). Representatives from the Pamlico School District and sheriff’s department were also given an opportunity to speak.
The public school bus system, nationally, is traced to 1886 when the Wayne Works made horse-drawn “school hacks” to haul children to face the Three Rs in Indiana schools. Wayne Works motorized their carriages in 1914.
It was a year before that, in 1913, that Pamlico’s first full-time superintendent of schools, Taylor B. Attmore, began his job with Oriental Consolidated School District. He would be an innovator in many ways, extending school terms and improving teachers’ wages, even working with Duke University to operate the Seashore Summer School, whose primary purpose was training teachers.
In 1917 Attmore decided to make it easier for students to get to school by purchasing the district’s – and state’s – first school bus, purchased from Corbutt Motor Trucks in Henderson, and hired the first driver, Zeb Brinson of Arapahoe.
Looking rather like a touring trolley, the bus was black, not yellow, with an open cockpit for the driver and two long, inward-facing seats for up to 30 students. The bus had a hard canopy and appeared to have curtains that could be pulled down against rain, but was otherwise open and, considering North Carolina’s rural highways of the day, probably made for a bumpy ride to the Graded School, which stands today as the Schoolhouse Condos at 505 Church St.
Kevin Harrison, section chief of transportation services with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, made note of Attmore’s vision that, he said, laid the groundwork for modern public education in the state. “He envisioned being able to consolidate schooling and educating all students, even those located in very rural areas of the county,” he said. “To bring that vision to life his school district purchased and operated the first motorized public school bus in the state.
“His innovation led to a transformation in education in North Carolina, from home schooling and one-room school houses to the schools we have today, filled with highly educated professional teachers and diverse groups of students, eager to learn.”
Harrison recited statistics comparing that original bus to the school transportation of today: 13,000 school buses in North Carolina travel almost a million miles a day, he said, “providing access to 780,000 students.”
Safety has improved as well: older buses, such as the 1931 model displayed on Church Street, used drivers or passengers holding flags outside the windows to alert other travelers of stops. Today buses are equipped with stop signs, flashing lights and protective laws requiring motorists to stop when buses stop, and to slow down and not pass when the buses use flashing lights.
“Where school buses were once driven by high school students, they are now driven by professionals holding specialized licenses,” he said.
James Horton, District 3 safety supervisor for school buses, noted that the system employs 20,000 drivers to handle its buses. Those drivers have to go through a 3-day training course, pass four written tests and spend 15 hours behind the wheel to obtain their licenses. Classes are given to drivers as well, he said.
Harrison, meanwhile, noted benefits of school buses nationwide. He said that, according to the National Highway Administration, students are 70 times more likely to reach school safely in a bus than they are in a passenger car.
Nationally, he said, “each bus keeps 36 passengers off the road.” Those buses save 62 billion miles of driving a year and save 2.6 billion gallons of gas, while keeping 17 million cars from joining in the daily commute.
Pamlico Superintendent Lisa Jackson said she was proud of Pamlico’s place in the state’s education history. “It’s awesome to know that a hundred years ago, Pamlico County Schools was on the cutting edge of innovation, and we continue that.”
She said, “What (drivers) do is so, so very important to the education of our students. Unless the students get to school safely, the teachers cannot do their jobs… safety is always our priority.”
Jackson noted that, while the district has no new buses at the moment, she expects to start getting new ones in the next school year.
A 2018 bus from Carteret County Schools was displayed that features GPS, cameras and other safety features as well as seatbelts for each of the 48 high schoolers it can carry, two to a seat.
It is also rated to carry up to 75 K-5 and 60 middle school students, though it only has 48 seatbelts.
Speakers made note of problems in the state regarding other drivers and buses, however. According to a proclamation issued by Gov. Roy Cooper that declared September “Safe to School Awareness Month,” in 2016, 7,144 citations were issued statewide for speeding in a school zone as well as 1,444 citations for failure to stop for a stopped bus.
“Each year more than 2,400 pedestrians and 960 bicyclists are hit by vehicles in North Carolina,” the proclamation added, “with 26 percent of those crashes involving citizens aged 19 and younger.”
The state has a website devoted to providing safety around schools and has a resource for pedestrian, bicycle and motor safety at watchformenc.org, as well as a site for school bus safety at ncbussafety.org/safetylessons.
Contact Bill Hand at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.