Drivers show off skills, safety at school bus competition

41st annual event held Sunday at BWI Marshall

July 17, 2011|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

When it comes to maneuvering a 35-foot-long school bus, Dave Edwards tries to think in simple terms.

"It's a really big minivan," he says jokingly.

Edwards, a driver from Mechanicsville, and approximately 100 others from across the country showed off their expertise in parking, cornering and braking on Sunday at the School Bus Driver International Safety Competition in Anne Arundel County.

During the all-day competition, drivers simulated parallel parking, backing out of alleys, crossing railroad tracks and picking up students among other activities.

The contest is a fun opportunity to display skills, but with an important purpose, said David Hobson, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, which sponsors the annual event, now in its 41st year.

"You don't want to damage the bus, the school if you're in a tough spot," Hobson said.

The competition attracted drivers from 37 states as they competed for top honors in one of three categories — small bus, conventional and transit style. Four Maryland drivers, including Edwards, were among the participants: Melissa Doherty from Chesapeake Beach; Melvin Jacob, Glen Burnie; and Melody Miller, Street.

While the design of the buses has changed over the years, many of the skills needed for smooth operation — such as a solid attention span and good driving skills — have not, Hobson said.

"A lot of it is judgment," he said.

Miller, who works for Moxley Bus Service, a contractor for Harford County public schools, started driving a bus before she graduated from high school. "I had a bus before I had a car," she says, laughing.

Judging coordinator Nancy Schulz started driving 44 years ago, back when buses still had a clutch, a two-speed transmission and no padding in the seats.

She got started when someone called the self-described "farm girl" from Gardner, Kan., and asked if she could help one morning. Today, she manages a training center for drivers and monitors in the Kansas City area.

"I had no intention of ever staying," she said, "but my blood turned yellow."

But no matter how long some have been driving, the competition can be unnerving.

As they gathered on an empty parking lot at BWI Marshall Airport, many drivers were hunched over the steering wheel, attempting to squeeze the bus in and out of tight spaces along the obstacle course.

After the third contestant in a row failed to clear the parallel parking course, judge Sharon Robinson gave her take on what would help. "If you put a load of kids on there, I guarantee they'd do it," she said.

Larry Hannon from Warminster, Pa., has won the contest six times, and placed first in the conventional bus class category again Sunday. A driver for 35 years, he said he does the contest "for the fun of it."

"It keeps you sharp on the driving skills and new laws," Hannon said.

Like other drivers, he said the work helps to keep him young. "I don't feel much older than when I first started driving and part of that is because of the kids," he said.

Edwards said he started driving 13 years ago after a back injury forced him to sit down for long periods of time. A driver for Hill's Bus Service, he calls the job an adventure and says he feels like an important part of his students' lives.

"You're the first one the kids see in the morning and sometimes a lot of them confide in you," he said.

As for the competition, "I don't do it to win. I do it to have fun. Winning is a bonus."

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