School Bus Driving 101: Training Wheels

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

In February 2018, I began my new endeavor in child trafficking at the wheel of a white Dodge Grand Caravan, chauffeuring a lone eighth-grader. Meanwhile I trained on a 40-foot bus for three months.

Under the watchful and sometimes amused gaze of a seasoned, sage, and blessedly patient colleague, I and several other recruits spent at least two hours a day three days a week learning to navigate streets, make pick-ups and drop-offs, traverse railroad crossings, parallel and offset park, and inspect a bus inside and out, from under the hood to the back bumper.

My first time behind the wheel felt like I was driving a building. I’d handled a 24-foot RV on a family trip around the West and actually parallel-parked it on a hilly street in San Francisco. But that was 14 years earlier. Eventually, the bus began to feel smaller though it was impressed upon me that that its long tail must never be forgotten when turning lest it give anything nearby a hearty whack and lovely scrape.

Practice sessions were conducted in local parking lots. The parallel and offset drills in a course of red traffic cones typically resulted in great frustration and occasional hilarity. One poor soul had a devil of a time deciding when to stop and nearly deposited the bus in a large bush.

The trick was learning to use the five rearview mirrors, each offering a different perspective and proportion. Parallel and offset parking meant aligning particular tires to particular cones before cutting the wheel left or right and then straightening it while slowly, continually backing up until coming to a stop. The object is to keep the bus from going over the back or side lines and end up reasonably straight within a ridiculously small, narrow box o’ cones. 

I’m proud to say I quickly mastered the art and science of running over the cones, which often got wedged between the rear tires. Some days, though, I could do no wrong and I chortled with overconfidence. Other days, I could do no right and reduced my instructor to quiet weeping.

In the face of these daunting daily challenges, I fortified myself with the knowledge that once I passed the dreaded road test and acquired my B license, I would likely never again be required to attempt these maddening parking maneuvers.

Mean Streets and Tough Brakes

While out on the road scattering pedestrians, we were routinely instructed to attempt the most hair-raising hairpin turns, snaky traffic circles and tight traffic situations without hitting the curb … or anything else. Threading the bus between a large oak and a mail truck on a narrow street while encountering an oncoming car whose driver was not inclined to back up didn’t do much for my nerves, but it prepared me for the worst.

Beyond the dreaded road test, drivers must perform daily interior inspections of the seats, doors, roof hatches, exit windows, steps, handrail, wipers, signals, lights, horn and steering wheel. Then comes the ceremonial reading of the dashboard gauges and the brake tests. 

The static variety of test involves engaging the parking brake by pushing in a yellow knob on the dashboard and briskly pumping the brake pedal to release air pressure. Once the psi drops from 120 to 90, a beeping alarm goes off. At 60, a little red stop sign called a wig-wag descends in front of you. At that point, you turn the engine on and, if all goes well, something called the governor restores air pressure to 120 and silences the alarm.

Exterior inspections require eyeballing about 40 items including the mirrors, lights, reflectors, tires and rims, whether the bus is listing to port or starboard (not good), and if there are any puddles underneath that would suggest a leak of some kind. We spent an inordinate amount of time on things we’d never be asked to do outside of our dreaded road test, mainly correctly identifying at least 21 of the more than 50 gizmos, flywheels, filters and hoses under the hood, as well as parts of the brakes and suspension. 

“It was never like this,” an old timer told us. “All you had to know how to do was drive. Now the state wants a lot more. I think they’re trying to discourage people from getting CDLs because they want to switch to self-driving buses.” 

If so, those buses don’t know what they’re in for.

Actually, it’s the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that now requires us to know our Pitman arm from our castle nuts, but the school district forbids us to raise the hood again after our dreaded road test. The engine is the realm of trained professional mechanics, though drivers are required to monitor 70 parts of the bus and file daily written reports on their working condition or lack thereof.

While not on the job, and perhaps even while sleeping, I constantly muttered “properly mounted and secured” and “belt driven or gear driven” as well as “ABC for rubber parts: abrasions, bubbles, cracks and cuts” and “BBC for metal: bent, broken, cracked or corroded” – the mnemonic mantras for the dissertation parts of the dreaded road test. 

Eventually, I memorized it all and got cocky. 

“The Pitman Arm was invented in the mid-1800s by George Washington Pittman, a railroad engineer in northern Alabama,” I brassily intoned to my fellow trainees during one of my last rehearsals for what would be a thoroughly humbling experience.

See: The Dreaded Road Test

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