Space around the bus in traffic
Maintaining a "cushion of safety," or a safe driving distance, is often cited as a key principle of defensive driving. "When it comes to escaping trouble, space is important," Smith says.
In the framework presented by Thinking Driver, the space cushion principle is described as keeping your options open, McDonald says. And, he notes, it applies to monitoring space to either side of the vehicle and to the rear, in addition to following distance. "By keeping space around the vehicle, the driver is able to keep her options open so she can make choices and execute them without having to worry about conflict of the vehicles."
Manage the risk
"Manage the risk" is another Thinking Driver fundamental and involves the driver deciding moment by moment what to do in the various situations that present risk, McDonald explains.
"Those decisions can only be made by the driver in the situation after analyzing all of the available data," he says. "You can't say to your driver, 'You have to always do it this way.' The driver has to have that cognitive ability to use their eyes, bring information in, identify the hazards that are occurring and then use that information to make a good decision."
Tips for managing risk include taking your foot off the accelerator and covering the brake when approaching a stale green light, taking extra caution at uncontrolled intersections and managing speed in the flow of traffic, McDonald says.
Smooth driving is safe driving
The Smith System and Thinking Driver both have concepts that address the importance of driving the bus smoothly, without sudden braking or sharp turns.
Not only does it give passengers a smoother ride, but it saves wear and tear on the vehicle, Smith says. In addition, planning ahead for stops and movements in traffic and giving plenty of warning to drivers around you reduces the likelihood of surprising other drivers with sudden movements that could lead to collisions. "The fewer times we stop, we maintain ourselves as a moving target rather than a sitting target," Smith says. "But by definition, buses have to stop. Braking early allows you to bring the speed down gradually, so you're less of a surprise to people behind you."
McDonald's fifth fundamental in his system of defensive driving is "Control with finesse," which requires drivers to regulate their input into the vehicle control systems (braking, accelerating and steering). Thinking Driver trains bus drivers to use techniques the company calls "total control steering" and "squeeze and ease," which applies to use of the pedals.
With total control steering, drivers keep both hands on the wheel and push and pull to steer, rather than going hand-over-hand, palming the wheel or putting hands inside the wheel, McDonald says. The squeeze and ease pedal application method involves braking and accelerating gently, then increasing in pressure. "This minimizes the shift in the vehicle's center of gravity to maintain more optimum traction between the tires and the road," McDonald says.
Sudden braking or acceleration, or erratic steering, can unbalance the vehicle and lead to a loss of control, he explains.
Adapting principles to the yellow bus
The size of the bus and the nature of school transportation require drivers to make special adaptations in their driving methods to uphold safety, highlighting the importance of defensive driving for school bus operators. Visibility — making sure the bus driver can see other vehicles, and making sure other drivers can see the bus — is crucial. "With the headlights on, you become more visible to people in front of you," Smith says. "If our headlights are on, that brings other people's eyes to us. The person coming out of a driveway or coming up to a stop sign is less likely to pull out at the wrong time if they see you coming."
Similarly, turn signals, flashing lights and the stop arm all make the bus more visible. "These are all ways of making sure people see you and that they're aware of your intentions," Smith adds.
In approaching a bus stop, school bus drivers must be able to split their attention between traffic on the road and the kids waiting at the stop, Smith says. This is another specialized skill defensive school bus drivers must acquire to reduce the likelihood of an accident.
Brevard District Schools' Mike Connors points out that school buses can be targets for bad driving behavior on the part of other motorists. "There are people that either want to get around the bus or cut in front of a bus, so you have to be aware," he says. He emphasizes the importance of learning the blind spots and how to check them, as well as the special maneuvering techniques that school buses require. He makes sure to cover turning radius, vehicle weight and stopping distance in his training program.
Training Coordinator Karen Reese says classroom training and behind-the-wheel exercises also focus on backing, crash statistics and elements of the Smith System to teach defensive driving concepts specific to the school bus.