At 5:30 each morning, Al Preuitt reaches the Los Angeles Unified School District bus parking lot in Bell and begins a pre-dawn inspection of his bus in a sea of red and yellow lights.
As hundreds of drivers start their engines for a state-required 10-minute warm-up, creating a thick, almost nauseating vapor, Preuitt begins a 95-point evaluation of the vehicle he will drive that day.
Starting with the dashboard and moving outside, he checks the mirrors and windshield, the inside and outside lights and lifts a side flap to inspect the oil level and engine belts.
Re-entering the bus, he stands on the brake to test the pressure, walks down the aisle gripping the seats to see that they are secure, and tries the rear emergency doors.
Through Traffic Jams
When it is time to depart, he inches his 37-foot, 17-ton, yellow-and-chrome vehicle past long rows of buses and onto the adjacent Long Beach Freeway. He heads downtown, through a jammed Civic Center interchange and, near Belmont High School, picks up 42 students whom he will carry to Grant High School in Van Nuys. Later that day, he will return them to the same spot downtown before ending his shift at 4:30 p.m.
The 42-year-old Inglewood resident is one of 2,400 drivers, each of whom often overcome long hours and split shifts to transport as many as 91 restless and noisy youngsters through heavy traffic for the LAUSD.
This year about 1,300 drivers employed by the district and about 1,100 hired by bus companies, which are contracted to LAUSD, are transporting 58,000 youngsters--more than twice as many as were riding during the height of the district's mandatory desegregation program. Officials attributed the increase to a rise in the birth rate.
Most Work Part Time
The drivers, who are about evenly divided between men and women, earn from $11.04 to $13.76 per hour from the LAUSD, and contract drivers may earn less. Most LAUSD drivers work part time, but can work during the summer driving, planning routes or as mechanics in the district garages. A small percentage of drivers--like teachers--elect to take the summer off.
Although the job is difficult--and some drivers endure daily commutes from as far as Palmdale, Hesperia and Perris--school district officials say that they do it safely. District figures show that during the 1985-86 school year drivers were involved in 48 accidents resulting in injuries during approximately 20.4 million miles of travel.
The figures included no fatalities. In fact, said R. W. (Bud) Dunevant, director of the transportation branch of the Business Services Division of the LAUSD, no child has been killed inside a school district bus since drivers started transporting children approximately 50 years ago.
Dunevant said no figures were kept on children or pedestrians killed outside district buses, or passengers killed in other vehicles, but there have been such fatalities.
In his 2 1/2 years on the job, he said, a school bus ran over an elderly woman downtown and a car collided with a bus in West Los Angeles, killing a car passenger.
During this period LAUSD buses have attracted much less attention than Los Angeles Rapid Transit District vehicles. RTD buses have been involved in at least a dozen crashes and mishaps since mid-March, resulting in injuries to more than 100 RTD passengers and at least one death.
Dunevant cautions, however, that accident rates of school and RTD vehicles can't be compared because RTD buses make more stops, travel more surface streets and frequently carry passengers standing in aisles--all circumstances conducive to higher accident and injury rates.
One safety device used on school buses--but not RTD vehicles--is a little black box on the dashboard containing a clock and a meter registering revolutions per minute of the engine.
The box, called a tachograph, contains a tamper-proof chart that tells whether the driver idled the bus long enough to do his morning inspection, how fast the bus traveled at all times and whether the bus hit anything.
"It shows how good the driver has been driving," Preuitt said. "It's kind of like a heart to the bus."
While safety records are difficult to compare, LAUSD drivers do err. Barbara V. Davis, personnel services manager of the transportation branch, said that during the 1985-86 school year about 35 drivers lost their state school bus driver certificates because of traffic tickets, failure to pass the state-required biennial physical examination or for other reasons. She said the school district keeps no firm figures on this area.
Davis said 36 drivers were dismissed for problems including absenteeism, dishonesty and violation of rules. Sixty-nine were suspended for from one to 20 days for similar infractions.