Pre-Licensing Driver Training: Ensuring Success One Session at a Time

Michael Dallessandro
Posted on April 1, 2009

Most people who have worked in pupil transportation for at least a few years know that to become a school bus driver, one must obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL), and this involves getting a learner’s permit, practicing driving a school bus and taking a road test.

While I don’t want to downplay the importance of these steps, a fairly industrious individual could probably obtain a CDL on his or her own with some discipline. But that is not how we acquire a quality staff. Becoming a school bus driver takes time behind the wheel and attending training classes with many different facets.

Having an organized training program to help prospective school bus drivers obtain their CDL ensures that you have control of the information they are receiving during their first few times behind the wheel. It also ensures they will not get frustrated, fail their first road test and walk away before transporting their first student.

In this article, I will focus on a “nuts and bolts” plan for success behind the wheel when preparing a new driver for his or her first road test.

Choosing the right trainer is key
Having the proper trainer interact with your new employees is the first step toward success. The training and exposure to the job of school bus driver that employees receive during their first few months can shape their entire career. For this reason, you must select your best and brightest staff members to spend time with the new hires and set a good example.

In most cases, your driver trainers will spend a lot of time with your new employees, so many of their skills, attitudes and personal opinions will be transferred in small doses to the trainees. Just because someone “knows their stuff” or has seniority doesn’t make him or her qualified to train your new employees. Make sure your trainers walk the walk and talk the talk. Their participation should be above average. During safety meetings, they should always conduct themselves with dignity, avoid being explosive or negative and support other employees. They must have the skills necessary to evaluate all sides of an issue and recognize that driver or union issues are not the only concerns. They must also promote a give-and-take attitude.

These are the behaviors and work ethics your trainers should exhibit and advocate during their behind-the-wheel sessions with new drivers leading up to their road tests.

Program components
With a comprehensive training program, your instructors will be instrumental in new drivers’ success during their road tests and in their career. The sample lesson plan that I will outline represents a good foundation to implement such a program. I will also list key discussion points with each session in the program that can be used to stimulate “conversation with a purpose” when trainees are driving and others are waiting for their turn.

The program comprises 12 classes that should each run about three to four hours. If your operation desires an accelerated program, the 12-session schedule can be combined into a six-session schedule by holding two three-and-a-half hour lessons a day with a 30-minute to one-hour lunch break in between.

The program should include a mechanism to gauge drivers’ progress after each class. Your trainers can develop short quizzes that the trainees receive at the end of each session to take home and complete prior to arriving for the next session. If your state has a driver trainer handbook, reading can be assigned and questions that correspond to it can be added to the quizzes.

Quiz results should not be used as the sole tool to weed out individuals from the program. Poor performance in multiple aspects of your training program should be used to determine who can cut it and who cannot.

Finally, this training schedule yields the best results when used with a class of three to five trainees. Groups provide your trainees a great learning environment because as they get to know each other, they often develop a team approach to the lessons, serve as coaches to one another and remain “connected” once they go off on their own in your operation. Groups are also better for your training budget because if you are going to pay your driver trainers an hourly wage for training time, you will get a much better bang for your buck when a trainer instructs five people in an hour as opposed to one person in an hour.

Session 1: Introductions
The first class should begin with an introduction of your trainers and the staff involved with the management of your operation. If you have multiple trainees, they should also have a chance to introduce themselves and tell the group why they want to drive a school bus.

This is also a time to provide trainees with a detailed class schedule or lesson plan and make each participant aware of the expectations for behavior, attendance and performance. A department tour is very important so that they can become more comfortable with their surroundings. A walk around the bus yard is also helpful and is a good opportunity to point out the type of buses that you have and what they may be expected to drive. Show them where the keys are kept and where the mailboxes and announcement board are, and establish that they can ask questions freely at any time during the program.

In the event you offer paid training, this is a good session to complete payroll information, teach trainees how to fill out timesheets or show them how to use your time clock. Moreover, confirm that they have received their learner’s permit as well as medical clearance or a physical. Remind trainees that they are going to be taught how to drive a large vehicle, not taught how to drive. Trainees often act like they are driving for the first time when they get behind the wheel of a bus. It must be made clear that the instructor will be counting on their good driving skills during these classes.

Then have the trainees board a bus and take them for a ride. This session will already be a bit overwhelming for them, so make sure that this ride is more like a narrated tour as opposed to a lesson. Highlight the different or special features that come into play when driving a bus compared to driving a car or SUV, such as mirrors, visibility, turns and braking.

At this point, the trainer can stop in the largest open parking lot in your area and let each student drive the bus at a slow speed in this controlled environment. This time should be used to review hazards or concerns that they may have to take on once they are driving on streets, such as low overhangs, weight issues or encountering other large vehicles.

At the end of this session, a pre-trip inspection sheet should be handed out and reviewed, and reading and homework should be assigned. Key discussion points for this session include school bus or personal auto accident procedures and reporting; what to do when confronted with unexpected hazards while driving; and additional training requirements that your state may require aside from licensing.

Session 2: Pre-trips and individual driving time
This session should begin with answering questions the trainees have and reviewing any assigned reading or homework. The trainer should then perform a pre-trip inspection, following the checklist your operation uses. Have the trainees follow along while the instructor explains why it is important to check each item and what can go wrong if a particular component on the bus is not working properly.

Following the pre-trip inspection, ask one trainee to perform a pre-trip inspection and have the rest of the group critique it. If the trainee misses an item, ask him or her to explain the importance of checking the item and what can go wrong if it is malfunctioning.

The trainer should make it clear that class time from here on out will not be used up on pre-trips. Trainees should practice them together on their own time and arrive 15 minutes early for each class to pre-trip the training bus, which will allow for more time behind the wheel.

Each trainee can then be allotted individual driving time in very low-traffic areas. The trainer should observe and instruct them on safe turns, proper stops, brake control and appropriate acceleration. The instructor can also explain what to watch for at bridges and underpasses, such as weight and overhead clearance signs.

Session 2 is a good time to incorporate visits to your in-district schools as well, and cover how to enter and exit parking lots and review where buses can park at schools. Furthermore, your schools are a convenient spot to change drivers since the instructor can take his or her time discussing how the driver did during his or her turn at the wheel.

Key discussion points for the second session include backing safety tips; laws dealing with transporting pupils on buses; clear emergency exits; and the role of bus monitors or attendants.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Session 3: Intermediate driving
By the time the trainees meet for Session 3, they should be working together and arriving early to practice pre-trips and using peer coaching to help each other get to the point where they can do a great pre-trip inspection from memory.

When the instructor arrives, he or she should select one trainee to perform pre-trip but should not say anything during the inspection in order to allow the other trainees to make any necessary corrections. This is a good opportunity to gauge how everybody is grasping the pre-trip inspection process. It is also a good opportunity to see how serious the students are about the training. If one of them appears to not have looked at the pre-trip at all, nip these poor study and preparation habits in the bud.

Once the pre-trip is completed, the instructor can review homework and answer questions on the bus prior to the behind-the-wheel portion of the session. Intermediate driving provides an opportunity to have them use your operation’s route sheets. They can build good driving habits, get a feel for the geography of your district and interact with traffic as they would have to on a daily route. Incorporating procedures for railroad crossings and even performing a crossing is appropriate during this session, as is introducing the concepts of “cushion of space” and “following distance.”

Key discussion points for the third session include policies or laws that deal with cell phones; eating, drinking or smoking in buses or on school property; medical requirements for drivers; and your operation’s safety meeting schedule.

Session 4: Practice, practice, practice
Session 4 should be designated for a repeat of the lessons covered in the third session. The main goal of the behind- the-wheel time in this session is to build a solid foundation of behind-the- wheel skills and to help the trainees become more comfortable in the driver’s seat and with all of the responsibility associated with becoming a school bus driver. The following discussion topics can be introduced to keep things fresh and interesting: mandatory driver retirement ages for your operation or state (if any), and various criminal offenses in your state that can result in being prohibited from driving a school bus.

Session 5: Advanced highway driving
The pace of the program will change in the fifth session. For this class, the instructor can follow route, field or athletic trip sheets that take your buses out of your district and onto major or multi-lane highways. During this class, topics such as procedures for paying highway tolls, using on-ramps and how to merge safely and exit can be covered. Most drivers who are trying to get their CDLs have never been told about how speeds posted at highway on- and off-ramps or curves may be based on passenger cars and light trucks and may not be safe for larger commercial vehicles such as school buses.

Finding your place in the flow of traffic, proper lane usage, watching for hazards, proper brake cover and watching tail lights for danger signals are also important topics for this class.

Discussion points for Session 5 include alcohol and rest/sleep laws prior to going on duty as a driver, Department of Transportation or state bus inspection information and confidentiality of student and co-worker information.

Session 6: Advanced city driving
Just as the previous session took the potential school bus drivers onto the highway, the sixth session exposes them to the rough-and-tumble world of city driving. Routes that enter a city or major metropolitan area should be used for this class. The primary teaching point will be managing buses in very tight areas congested with traffic. A focus on intersection safety is important for this class, along with discussions about pedestrians, bicycles, crosswalks, emergency vehicles and parked cars.

Other key discussion points for Session 6 include: breakdown and emergency procedures; proper use of triangles or safety reflectors; seat belt cutters; two-way radio use; fire extinguisher/ first aid kit location and use; and safe fueling procedures.

Sessions 7 through 9: Backing and parallel parking
The next few sessions will test the patience of any trainer and trainee. The bulk of these classes will be spent on safely backing the bus and completing maneuvers like parallel parking. (Worth noting: Trainees should be made aware that backing should only be used when absolutely necessary.)

These classes should begin in a safe, open area, and the bus’ four-way flashers and horn must always be used, along with an adult observer when possible. As the trainees’ skills improve in the “safe area,” they can practice backing or parallel parking using other transportation department vehicles as simulated street motorists.

The trainees should never be allowed to practice around civilian vehicles. In the event that one is clipped, you will have more on your hands than just a trainee who might not cut it.

Sessions 8 and 9 should be used to continue to build backing and parallel parking skills, with general driving added between parking attempts. Key discussion points can include various endorsements and restrictions that are found on CDLs in your state and middle- loading procedures for buses that are not filled to capacity when transporting students. Proper loading/unloading and crossing procedures for students; laws that impact motorists who pass buses while their red lights are flashing; and policies on buses being left unattended and running or with keys left in them in the yard overnight are also recommended topics.

Session 10: Final driving practice and fine-tuning skills
Session 10 gives trainees an opportunity to log additional behind-the-wheel time and will allow your instructor to focus on providing accident prevention tips that will make trainees quality defensive drivers, such as reducing speed at intersections, covering the brake, the proper distance for signaling turns, complete stops and a final review and practice of railroad crossing procedures.

Sessions 11 and 12: Wrap-up
Sessions 11 and 12 should be a fun wrap-up of the time the driver trainer and trainees have spent together. Each of the trainees should undergo at least two mock road tests that resemble as closely as possible the test they will take to obtain their CDL.

Most states have sample road test sheets, and these should be used as well. Drivers should be asked to present any necessary paperwork and have corrective lenses if they are required to wear them, and the trainer should model the behavior of the state or local motor vehicle license examiner who would monitor the driver during the test.

At that point, your trainees should be ready for their actual road test! I hope this article has provided you and your trainers with the building blocks for a new-and-improved training program, or given you some ideas to spruce up your existing program.

As always, your feedback is welcome at [email protected], and if you have an excellent training program for new drivers at your operation, I would love to read about it.


Comments ( 1 )
  • Lavinia Levaula

     | about 6 years ago

    Please I need your schedule for CDL Training Program. I want to sit-in that training program so that I can teach my school bus drivers here in American Samoa, to help them to excel their road test.

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