Category Archives: Bus Driver

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.

Past the Training to the Terminal

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 …

Follow the CDL road …

  So something more up-to-date here, I’m getting my CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) so that I can drive the real yellow (National School Bus Chrome) buses with the flashing lights for pay.  If you’re considering getting your CDL with a truck-driving school you can look to pay as much at $2500, and even more if you’re going for hazardous materials.  So, what is it you get from such courses?

  Well, as of right now I’ve just got past the physical and the written portions of the exams.  There are three levels of CDL; the ‘A’ license will let you drive the heavy combination vehicles (tractor-trailers), the ‘B’ gets you to be able to drive heavy single units (like a big, full-sized school bus), and the ‘C’ will get you smaller single-unit trucks and buses (say with more than 15 passengers, but not too many more than 25).  To get any one of these you have to pass a general knowledge test which includes safe driving practices, pre-trip inspections of vehicles, what rights and responsibilities you have when driving, how far from or close to some road/driving element you should or must be.

  You can actually get the CDL manual for free, and it has all the information you need (for your state, in
addition to the federal rules).  A ton of this information is common sense, as with the statement ‘[at an at-grade railroad crossing] you are required to yield right of way to a train’ or the whole section on ‘signalling’ which boils down to ‘you should signal to make turns & change lanes’.  But some of it is not so common-sense, like finding out that school & transit buses need to stop no less than 15 feet and no more than 50 feet from a passive (no lights, bells, or gates) at-grade railroad crossing and no less than 50 feet from an unattended lift bridge in order to determine if it’s safe to cross.

  Some of it is sneaky too.  One of the requirements on checking cargo is that you have to do it 50 miles into your trip.  Or 25 if you get an older test bank question from New York State.  There are 50 questions on the general CDL exam, 25 on the air-brake exam, 20 on the passenger vehicle exam, and 20 on the school bus exam.  On each of these, you have to score an 80% or better correct answer rate.

  Happily, I passed all of these on my first go, and am now the proud owner of a CDL permit allowing me to drive a school bus (with an appropriately licensed trainer).  Now the fun begins …