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."


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.


One-on-one training, evaluations
Smith System classroom training features slideshow presentations and videos to teach concepts and target audio and visual learning, Smith says. Then kinesthetic learning takes place in one-on-one, on-road sessions. "They get to hear it and see it as they're doping it, and for retention  purposes, it's the best way to go," he says. "It allows us to see that the individual has got it, and we can fine tune a person's understanding through a visual evaluation of their performance." As Smith puts it, trainers need to see what the driver is doing and make them aware when a fix is needed.

McDonald believes trainers should make behind-the-wheel evaluations of every driver on an annual basis and provide skilled coaching. Thinking Driver can make such evaluations, he says. "We also train instructors so the districts can have that expertise in-house."

The psychological component
Thinking Driver's courses also address the psychological aspect of driving behavior. A driver's internal process, meaning his or her thoughts and feelings, affect his or her emotional state, which in turn affect driving behavior, McDonald says. Or to put it simply, an angry driver is a dangerous driver. "You may go faster, you may be more inclined to run yellow lights, you may be more aggressive," McDonald says. "We provide drivers with tools to understand how these things affect them and how they can do a self-intervention. So that's why we call our company Thinking Driver," he says.

The program also teaches drivers to avoid emotional reactions to the driving behavior of other motorists. "You can choose, if somebody moves their car in front of you, to interpret that as a hostile action and then feel a strong urge to retaliate," McDonald explains. "Or you can interpret that as a driver who isn't particularly skilled and they've made an error in judging space as they made a lane change."

Because everyone has made mistakes like this, McDonald asks drivers to cut people slack when they make mistakes instead of escalating the situation by reacting angrily. "We are not going to change the behavior of anybody else around us on the road," he says. Better to not let that bad driving behavior affect your own attitude and behavior. "Being able to emotionally self-manage is a huge piece of the school bus driver's job," he says.

Training outcomes
The reduction in accidents speaks for the success of Brevard District Schools' defensive driving program. "When we first introduced it, we were not sure how the drivers would react to it," Connors says. "The feedback we got was very positive. The drivers appreciated it and, as borne out by the decrease in accidents, we have a safer and more efficient school bus operation."

Drivers also found an additional benefit in completing the training, Reese reports. "I gave them a certificate when they completed the classroom and behind-the-wheel training. They were taking it to their insurance companies, and they've been receiving 10 to 15 percent off their insurance," she says.

Smith says that the way in which a defensive driving training program is delivered is important. "Since we're dealing with adults, they've got to buy in at a personal level for tomorrow, when you're not with them," he says. "You've got to inspire them enough today so that tomorrow they're going to work on it." 

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Claire Atkinson

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