Three winners. Three classes of buses. One philosophy — study hard, practice harder. So say John Martin, Shirley Miller and Debra Huntington, winners of the 1998 School Bus Driver International Safety Competition held at Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va. The competition, a sort of Olympic decathlon for school bus drivers in the United States and Canada, is designed to recognize bus driving excellence. This year, 91 drivers competed in the event, which is sponsored annually by the National School Transportation Association.
Practice pays off
John Martin, an 18-year school bus driver who began entering roadeos two years ago, captured first place in the transit class category. He drives for Los Angeles Unified School District. Hard practice, he says, is what made the difference. Nine months before the competition, Martin begins meeting one Saturday each month with the other drivers on his team. They navigate a mock roadeo course to prepare for such challenges as the double backline crossover and the diminishing clearance event. The practice doesn’t end there, however. In addition to his weekend road work, Martin also hones his skills during the week on less taxing routines such as the left/right turn event. But Martin says the most difficult aspect of the competition is the depth perception, especially when using the mirrors. "Being able to recognize in the mirror where that vehicle is at all times and understanding what you see and what’s there," he explains.
Hit the books, too
Shirley Miller, a 13-year driver for the Dickinson (Texas) Independent School District, was the champion of the conventional class competition. She offered a solution for Martin’s depth perception problem, saying that it can be overcome by taking measurements using a string attached to the hood of the bus. Miller says that measurement will tell the driver how much can be seen over the hood in addition to revealing the area in front of the hood that the driver is not seeing. Miller, however, focuses much of her pre-competition energy on the written test, going over the CDL handbook as well as the certification and first aid handbooks. She doesn’t ignore the driving aspect; she just doesn’t worry about it. "I try to remind myself to take it slowly because a lot of people start making mistakes if they try to speed up too much or get going too quickly," Miller says. "If they make a mistake right off the bat, then they feel like they’ve blown the whole thing and usually from then on, they do." Other drivers sometimes ask Miller why she practices her driving when she does it every day for a living. "The particular events that you do, you don’t necessarily do every day," she says. "I just believe that if you get out there and practice and pay attention to what you’re doing, then you can’t help but come out on top."
Don’t get stressed
Debra Huntington, a four-year bus driver for White Plains Bus Co. in New York, won the competition’s small-bus class. Huntington believes that an easygoing demeanor helps her perform to her maximum capability during the competition. In fact, she attributes her victory to her fun-loving attitude. "For two years, I came in second place and when we go to local competitions, everybody always tells me, ‘You’re going to take first,’ and I tell them, ‘No, I’m going to go and have fun,’" Huntington says. "Maybe that’s part of it. I don’t go to compete; I go to have a good time and enjoy myself."
Zen-like focus helps
Aside from practicing the driving skills and memory recall aspects of the written exam, Miller says that what places her head and shoulders above her competitors is a solid "mental game," an almost Zen-like focus on her ultimate goal. But Miller’s focus comes not from a Zen master, but from a rather unlikely source — rocker Jerry Lee Lewis. "Almost always when I’m driving, I have a tune in my head and it just keeps going through my head while I’m driving and for some reason, it sticks with me until I’m through," Miller says. "One year, the tune was ‘Great Balls of Fire.’" Martin, who is the first driver in Los Angeles history to win the international championship, says that focus is also a major part of his mental game. "I’m looking in the mirrors, just focusing on the precision part of it, knowing where the vehicle is at all times on the roadway, how close to a certain object that I am and just being able to visualize that and staying focused on it," he says.
Never give up
While all three drivers attribute their style of preparation to their success, all agree that being persistent — competing year after year and with a consistent level of focus — is the one thing that cannot be underestimated. "I think what has made me a winner has been my persistence," Miller says. "I just haven’t gone away. I just kept at it, and I’ve always had a competitive spirit."