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Jason Olson, Deseret News
Duncan, left greets students as they board her bus at Diamond Fork. Duncan's passengers attend Spanish Fork Junior High and Spanish Fork High School.

SPANISH FORK — Korie Duncan routinely weathers one of the most dangerous highways in the nation — U.S. 6 — driving students to and from Spanish Fork Junior High and Spanish Fork High School.

And she does it without incident. Over the past four years, she's driven the canyon highway without so much as a fender bender.

Duncan recently was chosen Nebo School District's "Outstanding Employee" for her courtesy and concern for safety.

What's her safety secret?

She remembers that traffic is behind her, so she pulls her yellow bus over and lets them pass, said district spokeswoman Lana Hiskey.

Numerous residents of Sanpete County drive the route every day as they commute to and from their jobs in Utah County and Salt Lake City. Her courtesy has caught their attention. One couple even sent her a gift card and note signed simply, "commuters in Mt. Pleasant."

"We have also heard from truck drivers how much they appreciate Korie allowing them to pass and avoid obstructing traffic," Hiskey said.

U.S. Highway 6, the scene of many fatalities over the years, winds through Spanish Fork Canyon.

A bus driver for 14 years, Duncan opted for the canyon run four years ago because it better fit her schedule. Beginning at 5:35 a.m. every school day, she stops near the rural community of Covered Bridge and then turns onto U.S. Highway 89 to pick up and deliver students in the one-street town of Birdseye.

Twice this year winter storms added to the hazards, closing the roads, but she plowed through, the weight of her rear-engine bus giving her the traction she needed. She often passes tractor-trailers with their drivers putting on chains while she forges ahead, and she has come upon numerous slide-offs and accidents.

Canyon commuters have a culture all their own, she said.

"I've gotten to know the people, the families and the commuters who drive the road. I've seen commuters stop to help each other. The people up there are really good. They watch out for each other," she said. "I've never worried about breaking down."

She said she's also seen the darker side of the drive — motorists who "think they're invincible" or who drive too fast for conditions.

Once she nearly collided head-on with a car whose driver was passing across a double yellow line while rounding a blind bend in the road.

But her most frightful experience came one morning two years ago as she was stopped near a train track to pick up children from Covered Bridge. After students boarded the bus, the mother of one of them attempted to cross the highway to return home and her vehicle was struck broadside by a pickup truck, knocking the car onto the tracks.

The driver's daughter panicked, so Duncan ran to help the girl's mother, then went back to retrieve her first aid kit and make sure none of her charges left the bus.

At that moment a train came along, bearing down on the car. The pickup truck's driver quickly snatched the woman from her vehicle just before the train demolished it, saving her life.

"Safety is the most important factor in bus driving, as we carry the most important cargo in the world," said Hiskey when Duncan received her award. "Korie has the best interests of her students at heart, knows them and cares about them as individuals."

E-mail: rodger@desnews.com