So, armed with my CDL, I finished my on-the-road training and went to an active terminal, to pick-up and drop-off kids. My terminal is a concrete block building with three bays for the mechanics to pull in buses, two small bathrooms, an area for the school coordinators to set up the bus aides, our manager’s office, a sort of common area for meetings and waiting (and the coffee machine), and the area for the dispatchers. All of this was a bit confusing as to where I should be when waiting, and I could and couldn’t go. I’ll write more about it later.
At the terminal, things changed a bit. I and another trainee I was in class with went to the same terminal, but our training wasn’t over. Rather than being assigned our own bus routes, we went out with a driver trainer, and drove for their runs while the watched, guided, and gave us feedback. It’s a whole different level of driving having the live kids in play. Some get along and are nice and follow the rules, and some aren’t. Some are plenty nice and friendly and chatty, but can’t seem to stay in their seats. And while all our buses have seatbelts and the school district has decided that all the kids (PK-8th grade) need to be wearing them, most all of them don’t, even when we remind them to. The problem is that as drivers, we can’t touch the kids, and unless we’ve pulled over and called it in, we can’t leave our seats while there are kids in the bus.
In theory, when we need to leave the driver’s area, we should be setting the parking brake, putting the bus in neutral, taking the key out of the ignition, and if our bus has air brakes, we should deplete the air supply by ‘fanning’ the brakes. (This is where you ‘pump’ the brakes quickly, each ‘pump’ releasing air to the point that your low air alarms go off and the emergency spring brake engages.) When you’re on a run and trying to go from stop to stop, some not even half a block away from each other, you can see that it just isn’t viable to go check to make sure that they kids put on the seat belts, and even if it was, they all know how to unfasten them and the high seats keep the driver from actually seeing them.
Now, the trainers who ride with us take care of most of the discipline issues while we concentrate on driving and following our route sheets. If you’ve ever been stuck behind a bus that seems to be hesitating, driving slowly, or putting on its yellow/red eight-way flashers at the last moment, it’s probably a new driver to that route. The route sheets are actually made by the school districts, and are the best for hitting the kids’ stops, not for navigating traffic, or following traffic laws. Routes can send your bus down one-way streets the wrong way, have you making left-hand turns from roads where left-hand turns are prohibited during the hours that you need to drop off kids, sending you around the block because there used to be a stop on one of those corners but it isn’t there anymore, or that you have to make a left on a busy street, or go straight across the busy street that has no stop signs or lights at that intersection, and making you turn on tight (not wide) streets with cars parked on both sides and poles, signs, and fire hydrants close to the curb.
And the route is timed. You are directed what time to leave the bus terminal, and what time to be at each stop. In between each stop, there is a calculated time to tell you about how long you should be on a road before a turn or a pickup or before the road changes its name (sometimes). As far as my experience shows, this calculated time works out to travelling at about 27 mph from point to point. Of course, a bus, especially laden with kids, doesn’t just go from 0 to 30 instantly. It also takes time to stop it slowly and gently. As such, I’m always running late.
But there are other factors to running late. There may be no kids waiting at the stop, and then you have to wait at least 30 seconds for them. If there are kids, they have to get on, and then find a seat before you can move the bus. And if the kids are being unruly, it’s not safe to really yell at them and make sure that they’re doing what they should whilst driving – you have to pull over. And of course, this involves not just the discipline time, but also the stopping and starting time. And then there’s having to go back and get a kid who wasn’t at their stop at the time they should have been, but the parents have called and the kids are there -now- so …
The summary of this whole thing, I guess, is that it’s a new sort of driving. Even the very cool training that we got before reaching the terminal doesn’t really show you what it’s like to drive a real, live school bus. For training, we had lots of time to be careful, but now we’re on a schedule, and in essence, always late. More about this stuff later …