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Driver shortage affects student safety When the school bus drives down the hill to the last stop on its route in the Greens of Marlton, Steve Trabbic Jr., 16, cringes as the bottom of the bus screeches against the pavement from the heavy load of students. After boarding the bus he finds seats packed with high school students, sometimes sitting three to a seat or standing in the aisle clasping the backs of seats. "I'm at the last bus stop, so by the time I get on, there are already three or four kids standing in the aisle," Trabbic said in an interview this week. Trabbic and other Frederick Douglass High School students in Upper Marlboro are coping with the consequences of the county's ongoing bus driver shortage. "Every two weeks I attempt to ride the bus again to see if it's improved," he said. "But it's always full." Extracurricular activities after school relieve some of the crowding on the bus ride in the afternoon. "Sometimes I find a seat in the afternoon because kids stay after for sports and activities," Trabbic said. Yet in the morning, students at the last bus stops in the Melwood Springs neighborhood complain that there is no seating available by the time the bus reaches them. "The children are not going to the stops that are allocated to them," said Melwood Springs Homeowner's Association president Robert Johnson. "They go to bus stops further up on the route to try to get a seat. It's unsafe." Moving to an unassigned bus stop is also against the rules set by the school board's transportation department. Adapting to the overcrowding has left many parents impatient with the school system. Trabbic's father, a semi retired accountant, drives his son to Douglass almost every morning to avoid the overcrowded bus. "I'd rather have the inconvenience [of driving my son to school] and have him around than have him end up on a slab somewhere," said Trabbic. Angela Reed, the mother of a freshman and a junior at Douglass, once received a call from her children who were stuck at school because the bus was too full to let them on. "The bus doors were closed while a long line of kids still waited outside to get on," Reed said. "The seats were all full and kids were lined up in the aisle from the front to the back of the bus." The county has been hard hit by a driver shortage this year, according to school officials. The system is 50 to 70 drivers below the number it needs to run all bus routes without doubling up duties, according to Michael Dodson, the school system's transportation director. Remedying the problem is difficult because the county school board is having trouble attracting bus drivers, said school pokeswoman Lynn McCawley. "Finding enough drivers is not just a countywide problem," McCawley said. "It's a statewide problem." And the issue has remained unresolved for decades, according to Charlie Gauthier, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. "In our position paper we published five years ago, we stated that students not fully seated in a seat are not afforded the crash protection that the school buses are designed to provide," Gauthier said. The association warns that students standing on a bus can be being injured if the driver has to make a sudden maneuver. "The driver tries to take it slower. We crouch down when he has to reverse," Trabbic said about riding on his bus route. Gauthier recommends that school districts ban standing while buses are in motion. "These [standards] are just what the national association believes in." The seats on school buses are designed to protect occupants seated within the "protective envelope" of closely spaced seats that have energy absorbing seat backs, according to Liz Neblett, spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "We regulate how the school bus is built and then issue guidelines for safe transportation," Neblett said. "School districts then make the decision to comply or not." But it is not against the law for students to stand on the bus, said county school spokeswoman Kelly Alexander. "It is obviously not ideal conditions but it's not illegal," Alexander said. Both Trabbic and Reed have called the Upper Marlboro bus lot to complain about the overcrowding, but have yet to be answered. "Once a situation is brought to the bus lot's attention, it goes through the supervisor and then it is brought to me," Dodson said.