The sudden bus driver strike that affected thousands of students at three private schools in Qatar is over, but the country’s school transportation system woes remain.
Only about one-third of the 200,000 some school-age children here travel to and from school in buses, according to the Rand-Qatar Policy Institute.
The rest are driven by their parents or private drivers, contributing to road congestion and additional cost and time expenditures for families.
Many parents choose not to use school buses for safety reasons. But others say convenience, flexibility and reliability also play a role. This latter issue was brought to the fore last week during the unannounced strikes over pay by drivers at three Doha schools.
On Thursday afternoon, bus service resumed at Cambridge School of Doha, Cambridge International School for Girls and Doha Modern Indian School (DMIS), which are all operated by the Al Taleb Group.
It is unclear what sort of agreement was reached to get the drivers back to work, or if all of them have even returned.
According to the Gulf Times, extra staff may have been brought in to cover for those who are still refusing to work. Kavitha, the mother of a student at DMIS, told Doha News that she had seen new drivers at work on Thursday.
Mohammed Siddique, head of transport at DMIS, confirmed that bus service has resumed, and said he understands that the drivers have been promised a pay rise in the near future, although he was unable to give any further details.
The drivers all work for Al Watan International Trading & Contracting Co, a subsidiary of the Al Taleb Group.
Senior executives at the Al Taleb group were unavailable to comment today, but a member of staff told us that the drivers would not receive a pay rise as they have signed contracts agreeing to their existing salaries.
To avoid strikes like these and to improve safety, bus companies need to be prepared to “pay a premium” for the right employees, Rand’s director, Dr. Obaid Younossi, told Doha News. He continued:
“Companies need to be prepared to invest in their staff. When you bring in a different caliber of bus drivers, they command higher benefits and higher salaries. There is no shortage of those kind of people, as long as the compensation is there.”
Employees also need to be chosen carefully, and comprehensive training should be offered, he added:
“School bus drivers are not normal bus drivers – they have a bunch of other responsibilities. They have to look after safety, they have to have enough of a stature to provide discipline, and also they have to be able to deal with medical emergencies.”
In 2009, the Doha-based think tank was asked by the government to come up with ways to encourage more families to use school buses.
The resulting report, Updating Qatar’s School Transportation System, makes a variety of recommendations based on best practices around the world, taking into account local considerations such as the hot weather, a lack of sidewalks and single-sex schooling.
Key points include:
- Opting for smaller buses with fewer children to shorten journeys, allowing drivers to more easily navigate compounds and small streets and pick up kids from their homes;
- Installing “stop arms” and flashing red lights on school buses to let other drivers know that that children are getting on and off the bus;
- Hiring “bus monitors” as additional adults who would travel on each bus to help maintain discipline and reduce bullying. Rand suggests teachers could be paid to do this;
- Identifying school zones, and lowering speed limits around them at drop- off and pick-up times;
- Providing comprehensive specialist training for drivers, including first aid training;
- Introducing a checklist for drivers before they park their buses for any length of time, such as ensuring no children are left inside;
- Establishing a series of seminars and workshops to reassure parents that school buses are safe; and
- Installing TVs on-board buses to provide education and entertainment in traffic.
A series of tragedies in the region have brought the deadly combination of heat and a lack of proper safety precautions on school buses here sharply into focus.
In 2010, a four year old student at the DPS-Modern Indian School died of suffocation after falling asleep in her school bus, and being left locked in the bus on a hot day. Similar tragedies have occurred in Abu Dhabi and most recently in Bahrain, where a five year old boy suffered a similar fate this week.
To try to prevent such tragedies, Rand’s report recommends establishing a checklist that requires drivers to check the inside of the bus before parking it. Younossi explained:
“In some buses abroad, they have a system whereby before they have to go around the bus and turn a button somewhere before they can switch the bus off. It doesn’t cost much.”
Another key safety concern for parents is the high accident rate on Qatar’s roads. Despite this, Rand’s report doesn’t recommend that children wear seat belts. Because kids may not wear them, the focus should be on ensuring the bus is designed with safety in mind, Younossi said.
Rand presented its report to the SEC, Ashghal (the Public Works Authority) and the Ministry of Interior in June 2012.
Thus far, Younossi said that only a few of the recommendations have been implemented. These include the introduction of “safe zones” around some new school buildings, and the purchase of new, medium-sized school buses equipped with flashing lights, stop arms and escape doors.
“The personnel issues, policy and monitoring we recommended, I’m not aware of those being introduced. They may have happened, but I’m not aware of them.”
Do your children ride buses to school? Thoughts?
Credit: Photo by Lincolnblues