Route Hypnosis: Zoning Out Behind the Wheel is No Way to Go

Have you ever been driving and suddenly felt like you just awoke from a dream?

There’s an electric jolt, a moment of panic when you realize you zoned out and aren’t quite sure exactly where you are. It’s scary, especially when you’re at the wheel of a school bus.

Welcome to “route hypnosis.” Anyone can fall into it by getting lost in thought while not much is happening or the scenery is boring.

(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.)

Zoning out is one of the biggest challenges of this job. We school bus drivers are vulnerable to it due to the sheer familiarity of where we go each day. A kind of muscle memory takes over when you’ve been along a route many times. You do things by habit and that can really mess you up when your schedule has changed and you’re on automatic pilot.

And when you have a long stretch of clear sailing, you can easily start thinking about things that worry you or an aggravating political argument or your favorite team’s latest galling, bonehead defeat … until you realize you cruised by a turn or you hear that dreaded, “Hey, you missed my stop!”

You do it without realizing it and it can happen even when the little dears on the bus have your full attention.

One afternoon, Lucifer, my most accomplished middle school hellion, was loudly taunting and roughhousing with other kids. I stopped once to give him the evil eye and I also issued several warnings over the PA, but the obnoxious shenanigans continued. I began thinking about how I couldn’t wait to get him off the bus … and drove right past his house, damning myself to another five minutes of grinding my teeth while I found a place to safely turn around and go back.

On another memorable day, I was thinking about how I could possibly rearrange my already re-arranged (many times) assigned seats to restore some semblance of sanity when I hung a right and heard, “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver. Why are we going this way?”

I’d turned one road too soon at an almost identical corner and was now doomed to going about ten minutes out of my way.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

It’s mortifying when you have to radio in to let your dispatcher (as well as your boss and every other driver) know you’ve screwed up and are running late, but radio in you must because heaven help you if something bad happens while you’re off your designated route on the sly while trying to protect your pride. And you sure feel guilty when your mess-up means a kid will be late getting home for an appointment.

This job can humble you in a hurry, and rude awakenings are particularly humbling. During a half-day when I had to be at the middle school early for afternoon pickup, I automatically took my full-day route. That made the trip about 10 miles longer. I was praying I’d make it on time when I heard our dispatcher bark on the radio, “John, where are you? Your kids are waiting outside and all the buses are ready to leave.”

Gulp.

During my two years in this stirring profession, I’ve learned (the hard way) to prevent these unfortunate events. You have to leave everything, especially all worries and disputes, behind when you start a run, so it helps to think about the consequences if you don’t. Practicing mindfulness — consciously staying in the moment — also helps. You can train your brain to behave differently by staying focused or quickly snapping back to the present, but it does take some time and repetition of a conscious trick.

For example, if I suspect I may zone out, I’ll think about the way to my next stop. Or I’ll pretend I’m taking a driving test and have to point out hazards and road signs to an inspector while making surgically clean turns, lane changes and stops. Focusing on your driving is vital for safety anyway.

I have found that what works best, though, is the lasting sting of shame.

After Bumpus, the third-grade critic who sits directly behind me, drily said, “You sure miss a lot of people’s stops” I haven’t missed any again. Now, every time I approach the site of a gaffe, I am instantly reminded of my less-than-stellar moment there.

As one of my colleagues said after telling me about the time she started loudly singing Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” without realizing her two-way radio was on and everyone could hear her, “Some mistakes you only need to make once.”

On the Road Again: Hey, Where Did Everybody Go?

After seven months off due to the coronavirus pandemic, most schools in my district are finally open. I’m back behind the wheel of my trusty bus Tarkus … and things are quiet. Weirdly quiet. At least for me.

For most drivers and district staff, chaos is in order: There are new and re-routed runs to work out, and kids showing up at the wrong stops or not showing up at all or getting on the wrong buses.

(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.)

After our orientation meeting, it took me a day or two to get used to doing my pre-trip inspection again and locating the switches and other goodies I need on the bus. I also had to stock up on masks and gloves and remember to spray the seats and hand rail with disinfectant after each trip.

But other than that, my first week really wasn’t what I’d steeled myself for.

All of my intermediate school hellions from last year — Brutus, Beetlebomb, Robespierre, and Jehosaphat — have graduated to another school, are staying home or are being driven by their long-suffering parents. The only holdovers are Pismeyer the Projectile Specialist and Guttersnipe, a little fourth-grader who is known in NHL slang as a “$#i+disturber.” But this dastardly duo rides on separate days and there just aren’t enough kids on board at any time to start a good ruckus.

With most kids in the district being driven or kept home, I have only six urchins riding on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wednesdays I’m off while the schools are fumigated. Thursdays and Fridays I chauffeur three different riders. Instead of four trips per day, I have only two with a generous mid-day window of free time. Life just feels too easy, and that’s very unsettling.

Even with Guttersnipe in their midst, my Monday-Tuesday riders were like church mice. At one kid per seat, there wasn’t much deviltry they could get up to, though Lucille, a returning fifth-grader, promptly defied my “masks on at all times; no eating or drinking” rules by leaving a generous sprinkling of cookie crumbs on and around her seat. But compared to carnage of yore, this was small spuds.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

As we rolled along through the Hudson Valley’s gloriously sunny autumn countryside and down the stretch of winding, treacherous road where the kids always decide to come off the behavior spool, it felt strange not to look in the overhead mirror and see Robespierre sailing through the air across the aisle from seat to seat.

Or spot Jehosaphat scuttling about in the aisle.

Or constantly bark “Sit down back there!” into the PA microphone.

See: Now Hear This: Your School Bus P.A. is a Terrible Thing to Lose

Or hear someone yelling “Hey Mr. Bus Driver, Brutus is annoying me!”

Or smell suspicious scents like baby powder, body spray or waffles (yes, waffles) wafting from the back.

Or drown in noise that can make your hair stand on end.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

No, there was just the hum of the engine and the crackle of the radio as drivers reported rider snafus or that their buses were having mechanical difficulties. In fact, there was so much radio chatter that our dispatchers begged for mercy. But that’s to be expected during the first few days of a school year when everyone is trying to get an armful of things right. This year is proving to be a lulu.

Of course, I didn’t make it through the week without some excitement.

On my third morning, Tarkus greeted me with a “low coolant level” message on the dashboard followed by “turn off engine.” I made it from my parking slot to the garage where Tarkus conked as soon as two mechanics opened the hood. A mad rush for another bus ensued but I managed to pre-trip it and make it to my first stop on time.

Naturally, Pismeyer wasn’t there.

After a generous five-minute grace period, I moved on to pick up Persephone, a new third-grader. No sign of her either. So it was on to get Ichabod, another newbie.

Nope.

So I radioed our dispatcher and asked her to inform the good folks at Helga Poppin Intermediate that I had nothing for them that morning. Then it was back to the compound. Easy as pie as they say in the pastry-hauling trade.

You know, after all the mayhem and tomfoolery I’ve experienced in only two years of driving, I could really get used to this. I’ve always said this would be a really great job if kids weren’t involved. I’m going to have to enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts, though. The middle schoolers return next month.