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.”

I’m a Sucker for This Gig

It’s summer time and I’m driving a wet vac instead of a bus.

Fishmeal Falls Central School District employs a select number of us bus jockeys to assist custodial staffs as they prepare their institutions of alleged learning for the coming year. Monday through Friday from early July to the end of August I’m cleaning, painting and moving furniture.

(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.)

The messes and stuff you find in and under desks are pretty much the same as what you scrape out of your bus at the end of the year: candy wrappers, gum wads, pens, bits of pencil or crayon, paper snoops, broken toys, crumpled notes and other flotsam. I’m always amazed to find there are actually school buildings under all the trash and grime.

It’s fun to see how our dear little passengers live after they leave our buses — the books they read, the murals they paint, the inspirational messages their teachers post on the walls of their classrooms. Here’s a great one: “Life is all about mistakes and learning from them.”

Ain’t that the gospel truth?

During my first summer gig at a school, I made the mistake of fighting a floor-scrubbing machine and learned it can turn into a mechanical bull. I was doing a classroom floor when the scrubber suddenly spun. I reacted by trying to control it instead of letting go so it would shut off. I ended up on my back in a puddle of suds, fortunately bruising only my pride, but I now treat the contraption with great wariness.

One more: “Only focus on what you can control.”

That usually ain’t the floor scrubber or the kids on my bus, but I have a better chance with the bus if I tune out the yowling and resist the temptation to keep looking in the overhead mirror.

See: School Bus Life Lesssons: Picking Your Battles With Kids

This year I’ve been assigned to Runnynose Elementary, the scene of one of the highlights of my young driving career.

Shortly after I passed my road test, I was assigned a small bus and a handful of kids. Morning drop-off was behind Runnynose, but no one told me afternoon pick-up was in front. So I found myself trapped in a traffic jam of parents with very little room to turn around. Bubs, the head custodian, happened to be outside. Amused to see me and my predicament, he tried to wave me back and out, but I rolled too close to a basketball hoop.

Besides being an immediate attraction for gawkers and the principal, my little scrape required an accident report, though the damage was limited to the roof of the bus and could not be seen unless one stood on the roof of the school or went up in a helicopter or hot air balloon. Nevertheless, Bubs enjoys reminding me of that fine day while I toil under his direction in a hall or classroom.

The process of cleaning floors involves scrubbing, sucking up the suds with the wet vac, and mopping with clean water. “OK, Clem will scrub. Gus will mop. John’s the sucker,” Bubs declared to much mirth from my co-workers. Like my bus mishap, his words are now legendary and will likely end up on my headstone.

Getting a building ready for a new school year is no small job. Besides scrubbing and waxing the floors, we must wipe down all the desks, chairs and tables, empty all furniture from the classrooms, wash the windows, and paint any walls and doors that need it. The gym, cafeteria, bathrooms, nurse’s office and staff room also get the royal treatment. We’re often hopping from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the knowledge that the student body will reduce it all to a grimy mess in short order when it returns.

See: Coronavirus Shut Down: Missing the Little Dears on My Bus

This year’s prep work is clouded by uncertainty due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Each district in my state (New York) must come up with a plan to open safely, either fully or partly, in September. Runnynose wants desks separated by six feet, a physical impossibility unless some classroom walls are knocked down. New York State wants us drivers to make sure kids keep their masks on, a physical impossibility unless I can figure out how to be in two places at once.

Ah, well. Life is all about learning and focusing on what you can control, right? Hopefully the ride will be a little smoother than it was on that damned floor scrubber. At least I’ve learned to watch out for basketball hoops.

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