Hot Topics in Driver Training

Thomas McMahon, Associate Editor
Posted on March 1, 2004

As you may have noticed, school bus driver training is constantly changing. With the passing years come new issues for drivers that need to be addressed during training sessions.

Additionally, the ways in which topics old and new are presented evolve with technology and with advancing insight into how people learn. Driver training cannot be static.

To provide insight on the subject, SBF selected a panel of four industry authorities to discuss the current state of driver training, as well as what the future may hold. (See box on pg. 30 for a breakdown of our panel.)

Some of the pressing topics discussed here include violent students, foreign language training and children being left on buses. Panelists mentioned specifically that they’re placing more of an emphasis on safety issues such as weapons and other types of violence now than they were just five years ago.

There also seems to be greater attention given lately to the “danger zone” and precise mirror adjustment in driver training. An encouraging indication of this may lie in the Kansas School Bus Safety Education Unit’s most recent national loading/unloading fatality statistics (see SBF’s 2004 Fact Book, pg. 64). The figures show that the last three years have seen significantly fewer danger-zone fatalities than have nearly all other years in the past 10, the highest being 32 in 1993-94 and the lowest being nine in 2000-2001.

As options in teaching methods grow, training personnel must be apprised of what is available and what will be most effective for their operation. Our panelists talk about which techniques they’re using, as well as how best to use them.

While videos are still popular tools, the consensus is that they’re most effective as a supplement to training and not as the core of it. DVDs, which can allow greater interactivity than videocassettes, are increasingly used as teaching tools.

Trends also signal increased use of sophisticated driving simulators and Web-based training. But even as technology becomes more integrated into the process, our panelists remind us that the human element of training remains as important as ever.


Panel of experts

VP of safety, First Student Inc.

curriculum development specialist, Pupil Transportation Safety Institute

VP of driver safety and recruiting, Laidlaw Education Services

school transportation specialist, Florida Department of Education {+PAGEBREAK+} What are the biggest issues facing drivers right now, and how should they be addressed in training?

Abbott: One of the biggest issues for drivers is violence and weapons on the bus, including what drivers hear students saying and the responsibility to notify authorities immediately when threats are heard. This can no longer be taken as “joking.” Aggressive parents who frequently bring confrontation to the bus stop and onto the bus is another big issue. We have had drivers assaulted while belted into the driver’s seat. Addressing these issues in training requires assistance from professionals who are knowledgeable in the given area. Drivers need to role-play scenarios and understand they are not always perceived as “being in control.”

Ellis: The student population we transport today is very different than it was 10 years ago. The population of children with special needs has exploded in quantity and complexity. The most important training issue we face is finding ways to share with drivers and attendants safety-significant information about specific students with special needs. Another key training issue is teaching bus drivers how to prevent students from being injured or killed by drive-by motorists. Historically, our industry has focused on public education and law enforcement to reduce drive-bys, but while such efforts are admirable, they’re not going to eliminate the problem. The only effective way to protect kids from passing motorists is for our industry to rigorously utilize best practices in safe crossing procedures, including teaching bus drivers and kids a universal crossing signal and universal warning signal.

Jones: My view of this is it’s almost like juggling. We have to maintain the fundamentals: danger zones, defensive driving, all the basic stuff. Really the things that are getting front and center are student management and reducing unsafe acts, which are the two key components that absolutely need to be included in training.

Kanupp: The greatest challenge I am hearing in my classes is always discipline. I think the key behind this issue is to get school administration to buy into the fact that the problems are not going away and they affect all of us. More cooperation is greatly needed. You can teach anyone to drive a school bus; it takes a special person to transport school students.

What are you including in training now that you weren’t five years ago?

Abbott: Something that’s new in our training is the mandatory use of mirror stations, as laid out by Rosco Mirrors, at every yard, for every driver and trainee. We’re also using the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s eight-hour program for child safety restraint system installations and wheelchair tie-downs. Also, we have added Dick Fischer’s series on “Reference Point Driving” as an enhancement to the Smith System defensive driving program. Streets and roads are too narrow for the amount of traffic and size of vehicles. Drivers need to have the skills to determine if their bus will fit.

Ellis: In recent years I’ve done a lot more work involving Head Start bus drivers and monitors than I did in the past.

Jones: The two that I mentioned previously — student management and reducing unsafe acts. What we’ve done is developed a DVD called “Extreme Student Management.” Five years ago, the thought was, “Well, we don’t want to scare the drivers with how to deal with everything from hostile students to weapons to all of that.” But we’ve realized that in a number of the markets — urban settings, even suburban and some rural — that those are realities in our bus drivers’ everyday lives. We feel like we need to at least give them a game plan on how best to deal with those situations.

Kanupp: We’re hitting mirror adjustment hard. Safety and security is a big issue. We have had a couple of hijackings and sexual predator incidents in our state. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement now has a database that school districts can go to and identify the sexual predators and offenders in their area. We are working with these issues in many of the in-services and recertification training sessions for all of our districts.

{+PAGEBREAK+} How do drivers typically treat training? What can be done to keep it exciting, especially for veteran drivers?

Abbott: How drivers treat training sessions is all over the board. It depends on the area where they work and the size of the location. Pretty much, our drivers were getting bored and looking for improved content and more “zip” in the training. Beginning last year we made four out of the 10 monthly training sessions a “hands-on” experience. Breaking the large groups down into smaller ones has proven very effective.

Ellis: Based on my experience, which includes working with drivers from many different types of operations in many parts of the country, I believe bus drivers are hungry for information. Sure, there’s usually “one or two in every audience” that like to challenge the trainer, but by and large bus drivers are just a great audience to work with. Today’s bus drivers take their jobs seriously. In my experience it doesn’t take fancy technology or gimmicks to involve drivers in training, just a direct, honest, respectful, informed approach.

Jones: It gets pretty dull pretty quickly. I believe that the key is personal attachment — some way to get each one of the drivers to connect with that particular subject that we’re talking about. There are different ways to do that: role playing, setting up real-life scenarios, incentive programs, developing a Jeopardy-like game. One of the most effective ways is getting out of the classroom and going behind the wheel. If you’re going to talk about mirrors, then pull up a bus, walk everybody out and talk about how to set them up on a mirror pad.

Kanupp: Examples of simple techniques that break up the monotony are to ask “pop quiz”-type questions from the curriculum, give door prizes for correct answers, play rock ‘n roll music, give participants school bus yellow modeling clay to work with, blow bubbles, anything to break up the routine. Surprisingly, most drivers are not offended by these techniques and do not consider them childish.

How effective are videos in capturing attention? Do you think some operations rely too heavily on videos?

Abbott: Frankly, videos are a wonderful assistant to training but in and of themselves don’t work. What is really frustrating is to find a trainer who places a person in a room with a TV/VCR, inserts a video and then leaves the room. Absolutely unacceptable and non-effective. We are training our trainers to find a two- to four-minute segment of a video that clearly addresses the topic, show that along with a short lecture and be sure there is opportunity for feedback and, whenever possible, an actual demonstration.

Ellis: Videos and DVDs are great as a supplement to training, but should never be used to replace it. Yes, some trainers do rely too heavily on videos to do their work for them. Popping in a video and leaving the room while it’s on is a poor excuse for a training session. A good video provokes discussion, and a good trainer uses it that way.

Jones: I believe any approach done enough times in a row becomes boring for the drivers. Videos are a very overused medium of presenting things. We were heavily into videos for a long time, and in evaluating how adults learn, a lot of it is the interaction. What we’ve found to be the better medium is DVD. So we’re in the midst of transitioning all of our training programs to DVD, which doesn’t allow the trainer to just throw on a video and leave the room. With the DVD it’s interactive; it asks pointed questions and leads to discussions. The instructor needs to be there to move things along.

Kanupp: Personally, I have never liked to use videos. They can get very old fast, and from my own experience in classrooms, more students will end up asleep or snoring, totally missing the entire learning session. I use more hands-on. I find that the participants remember and can relate to the actual application of whatever point I am trying to make. When using videos, stop them often for discussion, use them in the morning, that kind of thing.

{+PAGEBREAK+} What issues should training include in terms of building and keeping up morale?

Abbott: Middle-school children often present a major challenge to our employees. Unless given information and help, people will become bitter, harsh, unfair and sometimes will just quit. One method that has worked well for us is to invite staff from the middle school to come to a roundtable with employees. Insightful ideas and methods of working with these kids almost always come forth.

Ellis: Transportation staff morale is a personal issue for me. I’ve seen operations with really great equipment and really good drivers torn apart by morale problems. Gossip, rumors, cliques and bullying pervade some bus garages, and it’s a shame. This is not just a “soft” issue — I am utterly convinced that there’s a direct connection between low morale and increased accidents in some operations. When drivers are generally unhappy about going to work because they can’t stand their coworkers, they are much less receptive to safety training and new ideas. My approach to the issue is to address it head on, talking about it openly with the drivers, but with a touch of humor.

Children being left on buses is a problem that seems to occur persistently. Is this a topic that’s not addressed enough in training?

Abbott: Please forgive my simplicity, but there is only one answer: every driver must do his or her job each and every time they have children on a bus — check for children before leaving the vehicle. We drive our ”Child Protection Plan” home during training and it is mandatory that every driver be reminded during the month. Also, posters tell employees just how we are doing across the company. Obviously our industry has not found the foolproof training and/or system for this serious issue. It is our responsibility to continue to over-train on this subject and move toward zero children left.

Ellis: This embarrassing and serious problem isn’t just a training issue — obviously there are management and equipment components to it, too. But in part it is a training issue, and, no, I really don’t think we’re addressing it strongly enough with drivers and attendants. I think this topic calls for a hard-hitting training approach. We’ve got to convince drivers that leaving a child on a bus is just as serious as crashing into something — and maybe more so.

Jones: I know that we consider it a very serious issue, and our policy is if you leave a kid on the bus, you’re going to get terminated. But we have an obligation in management to provide the tools for them to succeed, including a significant amount of classroom and hands-on training. We work hard with our trainers to make sure that when drivers get behind the wheel, they know they have to do a pre- and post-trip every time, and it’s very important.

Kanupp: Every district in Florida is training its operators to check the bus, and a great many of our buses are equipped with systems that remind drivers to check the bus for children. New bus specs now require these post-trip systems that require the driver to go to the back of the bus. Our state does an excellent job of trying to address this problem.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Should foreign language and/or culture training be required in areas where it may be relevant?

Abbott: This is a very difficult challenge that has political ramifications. We service many areas of the country where, in a given city, each neighborhood can have a primary spoken language that is not English. We attempt to hire employees who are both language- and culture-acclimated to the children they transport. It must always be remembered that English is our accepted, national language and should be sufficient to live and work in America. Sometimes though, it is just not enough.

Jones: I think that no matter where we are, all student transportation professionals should be familiar with diversity in their community. If you’re specifically talking about language, there are small pockets and provinces in Canada where the primary language is French. So we’ve made adjustments to do just that. But the U.S. is a melting pot. It gets very difficult when you potentially have 40 different languages that may be considered. So we strongly encourage diversity and understanding different cultures, but I don’t have a clear-cut answer for whether we should provide training tools for every language available.

Kanupp: I think it is something that should be required if the students are speaking foreign languages. I was told by Miami-Dade School District the other day that they have 30 different foreign languages to deal with on a daily basis.

What would you say is one of the most common mistakes made in driver training?

Abbott: The most common mistake I see in driver training is what I call “training from the known to the unknown.” Trainers frequently lose trainees by trying to teach them something they already know and are proficient in. Keys used by outstanding trainers are asking enough questions in the beginning of each new subject area, using a knowledge- or skills-based evaluating tool or just allowing the trainee to demonstrate what he or she knows and can do before starting the training.

Ellis: The most important mistake I see in bus driver training is the failure to systematically evaluate the effectiveness of a training session. Simply put, we don’t test enough. Training is seen as just delivering the material. But what if the trainee didn’t receive it in the correct form? There’s a reluctance to test drivers after a classroom session, but if we don’t test, how do we know they “got it”? In our industry, even a ”small” misunderstanding of a safety technique could have disastrous consequences.

Jones: It’s a lack of understanding the desired end result. We drop someone into training, whether it be a safety meeting or the original orientation, and sometimes trainers forget what they’re trying to accomplish. A lot of times they’re doing it just because it’s a requirement. So once they understand what the desired results are going to be, then they can modify their program to reach them.

Kanupp: Not giving the trainee adequate time to ingest all the information that is thrown at them. Time restraints and the necessity to get them trained and on the road sometimes take a back seat to safety.

What do you see in the future of driver training? Will computers be more prominent in the process?

Abbott: I see the use of electronic simulators coming into play. More and more, they are realistic and measure driving skills, reaction time and perception. We are using some Web-based training tools now. It allows individuals to train and test at their own pace and provides instant feedback and record keeping.

Ellis: Distant learning, simulators and other types of learner-directed computer technologies certainly have their place in the school bus world, but I’m a strong believer in the importance of direct driver/trainer interaction. In my experience, it’s the spark of human contact between student and learner that really produces the “Aha!” moments for people.

Jones: We continue to embrace technology wherever we can with regard to the training. We have several computer-based programs — CD-ROMs and Web-based stuff. I think that in the future, when we start going more to wireless and Web-based training, it can be a good tool. Now, I want to put the caveat out there that we can’t forget we’re in the people business. Our job is to safely transport millions of kids to and from school every day. We interact with school officials, parents, managers and other drivers every day. Ultimately, technology should enhance interaction, not replace it.

Kanupp: We now have a driver simulator that is being used, and I think more programs are being computer generated. Even with all the new rules and regulations for school bus drivers, we still transport the most important cargo in the world and that will never change. I think we still have to keep the human factor in our training.

Related Topics: driver training, morale

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