This post is the next chapter in the story of how I reentered the workforce and began a new career after "staying home" with my children. You can read the previous post here.
After passing my 4 different written tests with the DOL and obtaining my CDL instruction permit, and peeing in a cup for a drug screen, and being fingerprinted for an FBI background check, and completing the weeks of classroom instruction, it was time to learn to drive a 40 foot bus.
As if I wasn't nervous enough, one of our classroom days included the watching of training videos showing footage of school bus accidents (including fatalities), to impress upon us the importance of being alert and following the law. The videos below weren't used in our training, but are similar to what we saw. (I apologize for the annoying pop-up ads embedded in these videos. you can click the X to make them go away).
For example, don't wear your seat belt, and the bouncy air-ride driver's seat can catapult you out of the driver's compartment in an instant. This guy ended up driving into a house.
Drive too fast on a curve and you could flip over:
Daydream while driving too closely and you won't be able to react in time when someone cuts you off (this driver was also not wearing her seat belt properly):
Then there was discussion about what to do regarding wildlife. Unlike in your own car, you are NEVER to swerve to avoid an animal while driving a bus. Slow down if possible, but no swerving. This goes for deer, bear, dogs, and even small animals like squirrels and cats. We were told to think of it as "the animal hitting the bus," instead of "the bus hitting the animal." It is not our fault, it happens. I wonder how well I'd cope if/when this happens to me:
And don't think it can't happen. Below is just a small section of our district map with recent bear sightings. Deer and coyotes are seen in abundance everyday.
Approaching the driver's seat for the first time was scary. Look at all those knobs and switches! The real fun is that they are different in each bus. Even buses of the same model year have the switches in different places. Where's the door switch? Could be on the left, could be on the right... Where's the switch for activating the overhead ambers, and the one for the reds? They could be next to each other, or separated by other switches in between. And don't count on consistent labeling to help you identify the switches, either. The reds could be called "W/L" or "override," or not labeled at all!
Before driving a bus, by law, you (the driver) have to do a 12 to 15 minute "pretrip inspection" before every shift. Part of this includes identifying and testing each of the switches to ensure they're operating properly, and taking readings of all the guages and checking for warning lights.
The aim is not only to make sure they're working, but also to memorize where all the switches are on that specific bus, since you have to activate them in sequence when approaching a stop, and not take your eyes off the road while doing so. Loading and unloading students is the most dangerous time, an opportunity for kids to crawl under the bus as they go after their water bottle which has fallen and is rolling away, or to dart out from across the street when they are late. Kids are unpredictable, and if you're searching for switches you might not see the kid stopping to tie his shoe directly in front of the bus as you are getting ready to pull away.
Thankfully all the buses in the fleet are automatic transmission. Still, we'd be shifting up and down to contend with the mountainous roads and steep grades in our area.
Our first time driving occurred in a lot, going backwards, through a serpentine of cones. Needless to say there was a lot of lurching as we got used to the accelleration and braking. The pedals are different on buses, too. Some had floor-mounted rocker pedals, and in order to depress them properly you have to have your entire foot on the pedal. No pivioting on your heel with your toes on the pedal like in your car. To move between the accellerator and the brake you have to lift your leg, taking your foot entirely off one pedal and over to the other. Some of the newer buses in the fleet have "hanging" pedals which you depress forward instead of down.
The main aim for having us start out driving in reverse was to train us to use all SEVEN mirrors, and not look over our shoulder. After two decades of driving it was instinct for me to turn around and look behind me when backing, but it is NOT ALLOWED when driving a bus. In fact, we'd have points deducted on our driving exam if we DID look over our shoulder!
Another thing about the 7 mirrors (3 on the left, 3 on the right, and the giant rear-view "pupil management" mirror) is that we were to scan each of them every 8 to 10 seconds while driving, as well as looking ahead, of course. To test that we were really "seeing" and not just aimlessly glancing, the instructor would ask us what we just passed and should have seen while looking at a certain mirror. The tester would ask us as well, and points would be deducted if we gave a wrong answer.
After the fun of backing around cones, the next day we learned backing in confined spaces, such as backing your bus in between other buses, at an angle.
Aiming, turning the wheel, trying to see what you need to see in each of the mirrors, lurching as the brakes catch, bracing for impact, hoping you don't hear a crunching or scraping sound ...
Backing up is such a leap of faith the first few times you do it. You want so badly to look over your shoulder. You're trying to guess the reference point for turning, lining up your pivot point (the rear axle) properly, cranking it hard to swing out while watching for "tail swing," and looking in each mirror struggling to remember what exactly you are supposed to be seeing to tell you when to stop, throw it in reverse, and crank it the other way. You see the bus on one side, and the bus on the other, but don't really have a straight shot of where you are going until you are "in the hole." Line it up wrong and you scrape something.
The day after backing exercises we got to drive forward, on roads, out in traffic. Two of us went with one instructor, and two of us with another. The instructor drove us to a rural residential area with a 25mph speed limit and had us take turns in the driver's seat practicing turning corners. Above is a shot I took while another trainee was driving, and I was observing from the front row of passenger seats. The instructor is standing in the stairwell, giving pointers (literally) and at the ready to grab the wheel if needed.
We heard horror stories from the instructors about previous trainees... one instructor was thrown down on a sudden stop and broke his kneecap on a stair tread! Another trainee panicked on the freeway and ran into a concrete jersey barrier at high speed! Yet another previous trainee let go of the wheel, threw up her hands, and covered her eyes when startled (that's why the instructor has to be ready to grab the wheel). We students listened intently and hoped we wouldn't do anything like that, but one never knows, especially when fear grips you.
We spent a whole day practicing our turns, first in a quiet neighborhood, then out in traffic.
With a long wheelbase you have to drive straight out into the intersection a ways before cranking it hard and turning, since you have to get the rear axle pivot point close enough to the corner so the wheels won't go up over the curb (or drop into the ditch on rural roads). In our state it is against the law to swing to the into the adjacent lane before turning (called a "jughandle turn.") You continue straight ahead in your lane, then swing into the oncoming lane of traffic in the direction you are turning. If there are cars already there, depending on the intersection, you might not begin your turn, but just sit there with the light green and cars behind you honking. If cars approach as you are turning, they either have to get over to the right or back up, and if they don't, you just sit there and wait. It is easier for smaller vehicles to get out of your way than for you to maneuver around them.
Above you can see just how far a bus has to pull out to navigate a turn without running the back tires over the curb. Another thing to wrap your head around is that on "transit-style" buses you are sitting in front of the turning axle. This means that when you are turning tight corners or going around traffic circles (round-a-bouts), the front of your bus skims over the curb on the opposite side. It is so alarming to see a curb or sidewalk disappear under your front bumper, but have it out of the way before the tires come along from behind.
The second day of on-the-road driving it was pouring rain. What better day to navigate curvy roads, like the one pictured above? The speed limit was 40 on this road, and the instructors wanted us to be as close to the posted speed as possible, even though we were scared out of our wits and kept dropping down to 20 mph. Driving the bus 40 mph felt so dangerous the first time. The bus rattled and shook. Keeping our "lane placement" was essential, because if you over-corrected you could end up in the ditch on one side or the oncoming lane of traffic in an instant. Being in a wide vehicle you didn't have much wiggle room on either side like you do in a car -- you pretty much fill the lane. Lane placement is extremely important on curves. Going right on a curve you have to stay to the left or your back end will go off the road. Going left you have to stay right, or your back end will cross over the center line into the oncoming lane of traffic. So much to remember!
After a few days of residential, rural, and in-town driving up to 40 mph, it was time to hit the interstate highway and practice merging into traffic going 60 to 70 mph. The bus rattled and shook at 40 mph, so at 60 mph it really felt like it was going to fall apart.
My biggest fear with driving in traffic and on the highway was merging, because most drivers would rather cut in front of a bus then be stuck behind one, especially a school bus. But as the video below demonstrates, this is the Pacific Northwest. As long as I was surrounded by other northwest native drivers, I needn't have worried. It's only when encountering the non-natives that things get nasty.
After a couple of weeks of an hour or two a day on the road, I was getting the hang of driving the bus in most conditions (except snow and ice). As I muscled the bus around hairpin turns, up steep mountain grades, and threaded through densely packed urban neighborhoods where pedestrians stepped out in front of me from between parked cars, I thought about how much easier this would be if I lived in the midwest where everything was flat and streets were straight and wide. There were days during training where I felt like I was in some sort of mental boot camp, pushing myself way beyond my comfort zone, taking risks, holding my breath, and then being totally shocked when I managed a maneuver without hitting something.
Next up: intensive prep for the CDL Pretrip Inspection....