One-on-one, behind-the-wheel sessions allow trainers to evaluate driver skills and coach them to change any bad habits. Experts recommend annual evaluations.
Operating a motor vehicle in traffic carries a great deal of risk, but it also can quickly become mundane, leaving drivers vulnerable to distractions, fatigue or the dreaded "autopilot mode." On top of that, crowded roads and slow-moving traffic can easily turn drivers into road rage cases.
For school bus drivers, capitulating to any of these states of mind presents a greater danger, because not only is their own safety at risk, but so is that of their young passengers.
Defensive drivers manage the vehicle in such a way as to reduce the risk of collisions, regardless of traffic conditions or the behavior of other drivers.
Mike Connors, transportation director at Brevard District Schools in Cocoa, Fla., incorporated a defensive driving segment in his department's driver training program recently, with the help of Driver Safety Training Coordinator Karen Reese.
"I knew we had good drivers, but what they needed is to develop that defensive driving attitude," he explains. "All our new drivers coming in receive the training, and then in our annual inservice, we'll take a part of it and give it to them as a refresher."
Comparing the department's accident statistics from the 2008-09 school year to 2009-10, Connors says his drivers achieved a 33-percent decrease in reportable accidents after covering defensive driving in their training.
Defensive driving expert Spencer McDonald, president of Surrey, British Columbia-based Thinking Driver, spoke at the National Association for Pupil Transportation's 2009 Summit on the topic of driver training, emphasizing the five fundamentals he has developed, which include:
- Think and look ahead.
- Identify hazards.
- Keep your options open.
- Manage the risk.
- Control with finesse.
The Smith System, well-known throughout the school transportation industry, comprises five key principles for "space cushion driving" and collision avoidance, including:
- Aim high in steering.
- Get the big picture.
- Keep your eyes moving.
- Leave yourself an out.
- Make sure they see you.
Jim Smith (no relation to founder Howard Smith) is senior vice president of training at Smith System, which is based in Arlington, Texas.
Situational awareness and looking ahead
Driving defensively requires constant use of one's eyes to look ahead for possible hazards and keep aware of the traffic situation. As Connors puts it, "It's being aware of your environment, anticipating a problem and then being prepared to react."
Eye movement helps a school bus driver stay aware of traffic activity and also activity inside the bus, using all the bus mirrors, Smith says. "That helps them get the big picture, so they're not forced to make snap decisions, seconds away from whatever the disaster might be."
As McDonald puts it, drivers need to use their eyes to effectively identify and catalogue activity on the road ahead, on either side and to the rear. "We like to say if you don't see something, there's nothing you can do about it," he explains. "The earlier that a person can begin to identify what's going on in the traffic situation, the more time they give themselves to analyze that situation, make decisions about what to do and then execute the decision."