Category Archives: School Bus

On The Road – Road Rage

Recently, we’ve had more road-rage on our area roads, the latest being this one, caught on camera on the NY I-290.  This might seem tame, a pick-up all but forcing a sedan off the road, then the driver getting out to throw rocks at the leaving sedan, but for our area that’s pretty bad.

See, a whole lot of the highway system in and around Buffalo was designed in the 1950’s as part of the New York State Thruway System, and at that time, Buffalo had nearly 900,000 people in it’s metropolitan area, and was expected to continue to grow.  These roadways were designed to be forward-thinking, looking toward that expansion, but with the decline of manufacturing and the change in shipping that the Welland Canal (in Ontario) made allowing ocean-going ships to bypass Buffalo’s harbor and continue from Lake Ontario straight on to Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes, the population growth was no-where near expected (and for the city itself, a decline), meaning that our roadways are (generally speaking) overbuilt for the traffic they get.  Our ‘rush hour’ might delay you all of 5 minutes – maybe 30 if there’s a bad accident.

As a school bus driver, you really have to be good about keeping yourself calm.  School buses can clog up traffic, being the only vehicles that can stop ALL traffic (that’s right, ambulances, fire trucks, and police emergency vehicles have to stop for a school bus’ red flashing lights), and on narrow, tight streets being wider than cars, their very presence can make a road impassible for other vehicles.  We got a lot of ‘three lane’ roads (two-lanes of traffic, one of parked cars) that became ‘one-lane’ roads with the parked cars and snowbanks over this winter.

And over this past year of driving I have had numerous people bitching at me/my bus when I needed to make a turn onto a street they were on, and I had to wait for them before I could go, or when there was a ‘one-lane’ street where my bus was already moving in the one lane and they had to pull over into the parked cars on their side and wait for my bus to pass, or where I blocked up the road to wait for my 30 seconds at the stop where there was no student out and waiting for the bus.  And some of these people have cut around me really unsafely, slammed on their brakes in front of my bus, or not moved when a light turned green ahead of me, all while watching for my reactions, (I’m guessing) because they wanted to make sure that they were annoying me as much as I apparently annoyed them.

But, as a professional driver, you have to let that stuff go.  You have to recognize that sometimes the safest thing to do is let these idiots have space, and get out their aggression without reacting to their provocations.  And sometimes it isn’t easy.

Here are some sites that give advice on how to avoid road rage in yourself and your driving, and also avoiding being the victim of road rage:

And a lot of what they have to say boils down to a couple of important things:

  • Drive Safe: Don’t engage in dangerous driving yourself.  Leave space between you and other drivers, don’t speed or go overly slowly if you don’t need to.
  • Help other drivers out: If someone really wants to get around you and go speeding in a place you’re not, let them.  Try and pull over, or give them an opportunity to pass (though you might want to keep an eye on them ahead of you in case they’re really unsafe).
  • Don’t Engage:  Avoid direct eye contact, if you’re going to give them a gesture, make it a placating or ‘I’m sorry’ gesture rather than one that escalates things and makes them more angry.
  • Keep Your Own Calm:  Whatever troubles these other drivers have, don’t let them affect you personally.  If you are driving safely, and being reasonably aware of and kind to other drivers and someone gets upset with that, that’s their problem, not yours.

And while a lot of this sounds simple, it often isn’t.  School bus drivers want to keep to their schedules, especially if they have to do runs for multiple schools. My morning run includes two schools, and some at my terminal have three schools.  A 20 minute delay on my first school means that I’ll be 10-15 minutes late for all the pick-ups for my second school, for example.  And one of the things a school bus driver has to come to terms with is that if you’re safely driving your bus, you won’t make up time.  That said, some drivers fall prey to trying to get back on schedule and thus drop some of the safety.

For most drivers, this is akin to your being on time for getting to work, or to pick up your kids, or make that date.  Speeding on highways CAN make your trip faster over hundreds of miles.  Speeding on city streets generally doesn’t pay off, as stop signs and stop lights break down what you might gain, and, of course, your stopping time/distance grows as your speed does.

I think that driving a school bus and being forced to be so safety conscious and aware of how much space my vehicle is taking up on the road and where it is has made me not only a better driver, but a much calmer one.  I watch other people struggle and jockey for position on the road and let them at it.

The bottom line, if being safe makes me late, then I’ll be late.  If I’m going to be throwing rocks at a vehicle, it’ll be for a good reason like this:  Daring rescue saves driver of burning truck.


Update 03/22/15: They’ve caught the driver of the pick-up in the video above, and are charging him with first degree reckless endangerment, a class D felony.  It’s no joke!

 

At the Terminal – The Frozen Bus

It’s been really cold here over the last couple of weeks, and last Tuesday I hit my first real mechanical trouble with my regular school bus run.

I had previously dealt with a bus that had mechanical problems, after I had finished my run, I went to exchange my bus with a driver whose bus had broken down (though I had thought I was going to just pick up the kids and take them a couple of blocks to their drop-off location).  In that instance, a mechanic had already been at work on the downed bus, and got it back to running, so I got to drive it back to the terminal, and have it cut out on me on the trip.  All in all, this was a good thing, since it helped the mechanic to pin-point the problem to an electrical connection, and the whole thing was reasonably fast and simple.

My run is one single school in the mornings, and it’s fairly long.  I leave my terminal at about 6:30 and start picking up kids at around 5 minutes to seven.  And then I drive across the city to get to the school to drop off at 8:00.  Then I get to drive back to the terminal (if I don’t help out with another run) and get there around 8:30 if all goes well.  There are, of course, issues – those kids who wait in the house until the bus comes and aren’t ready when it does, the ones who are running late and have to run down the street to get to the stop while I wait, the cars who get stuck and block the small streets who I have to wait for, and the other buses who need to pick up along the same route who I can get stuck behind, not to mention simple traffic and regular accidents that throw wrenches into the finely tuned route that the school board’s program spits out.

At any rate, Tuesday had a fine start.  It was cold (temps in the negative single digits), but my regular bus started up fine.  Traffic was moving slowly, so I was a couple of minutes behind in picking up kids, but they were out and things moved right along.  We don’t have cold-weather ‘bibs’ to cover our radiators, and my coolant temperature never got above 155 degrees (this is significant on the one hand because it means that the bus never really warmed up inside, and on the other it indicates how cold it was for the bus’ systems.  The ‘bibs’ limit the airflow over the radiator and allow the bus engine to warm up more).

After picking up all my kids and driving the long way to the school, the engine seemed to lose some power when accelerating.  Not a lot, and not steadily.  In driving stand-by and when my regular bus was in the shop I had driven other buses, and some were full of vim and vigor and others were rather sloppy and lethargic, so I knew there was a range, but this was my bus, and it didn’t do stuff like that, so I was careful with it.

By keeping a slow acceleration and a light foot on the pedal, I could get the bus up to 30 mph (city speed limit), and ride along fine, so I kept on to school, though it seemed to be getting a bit worse.  I called in when I was five minutes from school, to make sure our dispatchers knew, and if it was serious, they’d advise, though I said that I was continuing on to school, and they were okay with that.

I made school and unloaded safely, and called in to the terminal that the engine was getting a bit worse and that I was headed back.  I would usually have taken an expressway back to the terminal, but decided that I wouldn’t today, since the bus was acting strangely.  The temperature of the coolant was hitting a max of 150 degrees, and I was wondering if it was just being too cold for the engine to fire on all cylinders, especially since I was now noting a cloud behind the bus (as I could give more attention to the bus without paying attention to the kids).

And the bus was getting worse.

My route back along the city streets took me over a raised bridge over some train tracks, and I could barely hold 5 mph on the incline.  I was ready to call it in, but on the downside of the bridge, the engine seemed to pick up some power, and I got the bus up to 25 mph and decided not to call.  But a few blocks later, I was coming up to an intersection (behind an already stopped truck), and as I stopped the bus and the engine idled, it died.  I tried to start it a couple of times, and while the engine would turn over, it wouldn’t catch.

The air brake went on, the flashers went on, and I called in that the bus had died.  I verified that I had no kids on the bus, and our dispatchers called to the mechanics to have them send someone out to me.  I dug out the reflective triangles and pulled on my coat, and watched for traffic before stepping off the bus to put a triangle in place.  Now, that might strike you as odd; why would I have to check?  Wasn’t I already at the curb?

Well, no.  The street that I was traveling along had not had it’s sidewalk cleared, and so there was a person walking in the street, and one of the understandings of the bus drivers is that ‘the other guy always has right of way’, so I was far enough from the curb that small cars (and even a small van-based bus that didn’t mind taking limbs off of the curbside trees) could pass my bus on the right, as long as they were willing to brave the snowbank and an angled car.

I ended up waiting almost 30 minutes. Finally, a mechanic showed up with a ‘tool bus’ (a little van bus with a massive battery pack for jumping buses and tools and such), and got to work on the engine.  A quick diagnosis was “water in the fuel line”.  As he got to work on opening the hood and then a filter atop the engine, I boggled for a moment about how, if it was so cold, I could have even started the engine and had the bus run fine for so long on the run with water in the fuel?

Then I remembered about one of the things that’s different about a diesel fuel system than a gas system that I had to pay attention to for a WVO conversion:  the diesel engine doesn’t use all the fuel that the pump brings up to the fuel rail.  The excess is returned to the fuel tank, so there’s a constant flow of fuel round the system and for WVO, it’s important because running the fuel by the engine heats it and when switching between WVO and diesel, you need a delay to clear the line of the other fuel so you don’t mix them in the same tank.  For my bus that morning, it was only the heating aspect that was important.

Aha! Over my run, the fuel in the tank was slowly being heated, despite the mass it had and the non-insulated tank, to the point where it could melt the water that had obviously been turned to ice in the cold.  Thus, it was a delayed problem.

At any rate, despite the two bottles of additive he put in the filter holder and the time spent cranking the engine (about 40 minutes time in total) we ended up having to leave the bus to have it towed.  It felt bad leaving it like that, but there was nothing to do for it.  The mechanic said that there were two filters and the second one was under the engine and the water had probably hit it and refrozen there since it was so cold.  The only real remedy at that point was to bring the bus into the shop and thaw it, then add more additive to the fuel to the system to absorb the water.

 

After having my own bus, and working on it myself, the policy that drivers can’t open the hoods of their buses (not even to add more wiper fluid or open/close coolant flow to the heaters) is so frustrating.  I can’t say what engine I have in the bus, and my view from the windshield while the mechanic was working on it was pretty poor.

At any rate, it was a new and different experience.

At The Terminal – Snow & an Accident (not mine!)

So, more lessons from being a real school bus driver, not just a skoolie.

I have to start with a news story from last Thursday (December 11), where a school bus driver slid the back of his bus into the open door of a parked car, catching a pregnant woman’s arm as the door was forced closed  (and another report).  The weather was snowy, with rain that had turned to snow overnight.

Bus Accident 12/11/14  The video from the surveillance camera (in the first link) really nicely shows what happened.  It’s obvious that the driver had the bus in drive and the wheels spun as the bus tried to get going, but then they caught, and then spun again, causing the bus to slide into the woman’s car and catching her arm.  Now, for people who are used to gasoline powered cars, it must look like the driver stepped down hard on the pedal, let off, then stepped down hard again, but that’s not likely to be the case.  The diesel engines in these buses are slow to ramp up.  Yes, you can step down hard on the pedal, and the bus will go, but it’s not as reactive as a gas engine.

    You might also ask if the street is slanted.  I used to drive the route and the driver is only on that street for one block (unless they’ve changed something serious since October), and the street is nice and flat.  Why then would the bus slide like that?  Well, for one thing, it was empty (the driver is out of my terminal, and I heard the report on the radio), he being almost an hour late due to the weather and not having had his first stop’s student on the bus (otherwise, as you can see in the video, he wouldn’t be able to get off the bus).

Now, you might not think that the kids on the bus weigh alot, but the buses that size can now carry 58 students (they were standard 65 student buses, but the upgraded seats that all have three-point harnesses cut that down), and we carry all the spectrum from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade students.  If you figure a simple 85 pounds per student, you’re looking at just about  two and a half tons of kids in the buses weight.  This makes a huge difference not only in acceleration and braking speeds and distances, but also in handling, as these buses are rear-wheel drive, front-engine buses.

As it was for my run on that day, I ended up getting to my school fifteen minutes late, and spent most of my run 10 minutes late, but not because I felt the roads were so slippery.  Coming out of our yard and heading to the start point of my route (in my empty bus), I noted the slippery aspect of the roads, and dropped my gearing from drive (which worked fine in the gravel of the bus lot) down to second, due to the thin film of slippery slushy snow under all the fluffy snow of the five or six inches that were on the roads.

One of the things this did was limit my buses’ top speed down to 25 miles per hour (which isn’t a big deal since the speed limit in the city is 30 mph), but also kept the bus from shifting down as quickly.  This made it easier to get and keep traction.  I also started braking a little earlier, since people stomping on the brakes to stop suddenly and then stomping on the gas to get going at intersections makes them extra slippery.  But here’s a place where driving the bus actually helps – your drive and dual braking tires are in the back, farther behind where cars tend to make slippery.  So I actually found the driving to be fine.  No slips, no slides, no being out of control.  And the more students I picked up, the better it got, as I got more weight over my drive wheels in the back.

My lateness was due to accidents that I had to pass and other drivers who were not driving safely.  And while I understand that not everyone is as comfortable in winter driving as I am, everyone should be as aware of how to drive  in these weather conditions, just in case.

It also makes me much more comfortable with the prospect of driving the skoolie through inclement weather.  Due to the built in nature of the furniture and appliances (and the water tank, when that goes in), there should be plenty of stable weight to maintain control.  Plus, manual transmissions help out a lot in situations like this.  If I could go back to Thursday and change my bus from an automatic to a standard, I probably would have had an even more enjoyable day, driving-in-that-weather-wise (but probably not for the amount of stop-signs on my route!).

But the bus accident above was another really good reminder of how a driver has to be really careful all the time.  As much as the street the driver was on was a one-way street, he should never have been that close to that car anyhow.  The video certainly makes it look like he could have been another foot or more over toward the right side of the street.  Does that accident come down to poor judgement and the bad luck to hit an extra-slippery bit of street?  Probably.  But that sort of thing scares me silly, so I try to drive carefully.

As we all should.