Driving a school bus is a highly specialized job, requiring extensive training, both pre-hire and continuing throughout a driver’s career. School bus operations implement many different types of training programs to match the wide variety of state-mandated requirements in place. Some go above and beyond those requirements, however, using innovative approaches and practices to keep their drivers in top form.

Training modules cover all the bases
Peter Lawrence, director of transportation at Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District, has established a program of training modules for new hires that takes them from novices to licensed school bus drivers. “Both the trainer and trainee sign off on a competency area once mastered,” he explains. “We allow the trainer and trainee flexibility to schedule training sessions that will work for both individuals. However, the training modules need to be followed in order to ensure mastery, as one skill builds upon another.” In total, the six modules take between 35 and 40 hours to complete, he estimates.

Lawrence recommends hiring drivers who have not yet obtained a CDL in order to avoid any bad habits they may have picked up as commercial drivers in another capacity or as school bus drivers at another district. “For example, if someone was a tractor-trailer driver, they might be more aggressive with their following distance,” he explains.

The first module covers required paperwork, general orientation and introduction to office staff and mechanics. Following that, the trainees are systematically introduced to the controls and equipment on the bus, including lights, mirrors and the two-way radio. Then right turns, left turns and fueling are covered, followed by introduction to stopping, lane changes, parking, backing, railroad crossings and the Smith System of defensive driving.

During the last training module, trainers help drivers learn the basics of school-run driving and practice for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles road test required to obtain a CDL. After drivers are licensed, Lawrence schedules a behind-the-wheel road test every other year to monitor driver skills. “The way we approach it, it’s a learning road test,” he says. He aims to help drivers identify the skills they need to improve and applaud the skills they have mastered. “The state mandates that if you fail either the road test or the written test, you get a mandatory two days off without pay,” Lawrence says. “People need to know this stuff, so I don’t really look at that as a negative.”

Using roadeo events to enhance driver skills
School bus drivers for Troup County School System in LaGrange, Ga., go through a comprehensive training program, including assistance in obtaining a CDL, 12 hours of state-mandated classroom training, six hours of driving a bus without passengers and six hours with passengers, according to Director of Transportation Mark Lindstrom.

Lindstrom also coordinates two hours of training at the beginning of each year in tandem with an annual two-hour program provided by the state. Drivers also receive training every payday on topics related to pupil transportation, including loading and unloading and winter driving. The department also offers CPR courses, the National Safety Council defensive driving course and an eight-hour professional driving course.

To address driving skills specifically, Lindstrom sets up a roadeo obstacle for drivers to attempt during their monthly inspection days. “It may be a railroad crossing, backing or a parking exercise,” he explains. “We don’t grade it, so they don’t have this fear that ‘the boss is going to see my score.’”

Lindstrom ensures that trainers are on hand to assist drivers in completing the exercise and to record which drivers attend and complete the obstacle. In addition to improving their skills behind the wheel, the monthly exercises also prepare drivers for the county and state-level roadeos. “We typically hold our [county] roadeo in May, so if they’ve gone every month, they would have seen every exercise at least once.”

As an incentive to completing extra training and achieving high standards, the transportation department has established a master driver program, Lindstrom says. Master drivers must have three years of experience on the job, outstanding attendance, no discipline problems or chargeable accidents within a 36-month period, completion of the defensive driving and professional drivers’ courses, and first aid and CPR training. Eligible drivers must also have completed a roadeo exercise three times in the last 12 months and a full, graded roadeo once within the last two years. Drivers who have met all of these requirements receive a bonus.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Remedial training helps retain drivers
At Monroe County Community School Corp. (MCCSC), new drivers receive a three-ring binder containing the department’s comprehensive driver handbook. Director of Transportation Mike Clark says its contents include dos and don’ts, a script for drivers to follow when speaking with parents and the mirror grid diagram.

The initial topics covered orient new hires to the department and introduce critical concepts, including that they are members of a “safety team.”

When it comes to learning driving skills, trainees are put through the skills portion of the CDL exam, Clark says. “Then we do some on-the-road training with them — turning into oncoming traffic, braking, pulling in and out of traffic and just the general basics of driving.”

After covering driver skills and pre-trip inspections during their training sessions, MCCSC has new drivers take a mock skills test in preparation for the state exam. Once this initial training is complete, trainees drive a route with an experienced driver. The total program adds up to about 40 hours, Clark says.

Clark also uses films on mirrors, pre-trip inspections and confidentiality to introduce new drivers to safety topics before getting behind the wheel. Later during the training period, MCCSC drivers watch films on railroad crossings, evacuations, meeting parents, loading and unloading, behavior management and crisis situations.

In addition, the department’s driver trainers took a course with school bus safety training firm Trans-Consult to increase their knowledge and were able to contribute new methods and ideas to improve training policies at the district.

Clark has also implemented an accident policy that relies on remedial training to prevent recurring incidents instead of suspending drivers. “We don’t suspend, unless it was an accident where there was injury or complete driver negligence,” he explains. After the second incident, a driver does four hours of remedial training. The third incident requires eight hours of training as well as attending defensive driving school. A fourth accident results in a suspension.

Additionally, Clark arranges for individual training for any driver who approaches him seeking help with a particular maneuver or skill.

Revised standards solidify safety efforts
After First Student’s takeover of Laidlaw in 2007, representatives from both companies formed a best practices committee to put together a brand new training program, combining elements from each company’s materials, Kathy Nichols says. Nichols is a safety standards and training manager for First Student.

In May, First Student began holding five-day “Train the Trainer” programs at each location in the U.S. and Canada to introduce the new program to the company’s approximately 1,000 trainers.

First Student’s pre-hire training includes a minimum of 25 hours in the classroom and 15 hours behind the wheel for the drivers. “The behind-the-wheel program includes all sorts of vehicle maneuvers, such as right turns, left turns, backing, parking, parallel parking, evacuations, safety equipment, how to operate the radio and pre-trip programs,” Nichols explains.

The company also requires monthly one-hour safety meetings for all drivers, attendants and technicians. “Every year at the start of the year, we have what we call a kick-off program, a two-hour safety program,” Nichols says. “But this year because of the integration with [Laidlaw], we’re having a special four-hour safety day program.”

The safety day will include a general session for drivers and attendants, and then the group will split up for job-specific sessions later in the day.

In addition, First Student drivers participate in continual development to improve skills. “It’s up to the location to provide additional skills enhancement,” Nichols says.

Nichols reports that drivers at various First Student locations have a great deal of enthusiasm for state-level driver competitions, which helps fuel efforts to improve their skills. “Some regions really do it up very nicely and it’s a huge event that the drivers look forward to each year,” she says. This year, First Student sent 23 drivers to the International School Bus Driver Safety Competition in Calgary, Alberta, during the National School Transportation Association’s annual meeting in July. Three First Student drivers took away top prizes in the competition. Furthermore, First Student Canada driver Alice Praud received the association’s Outstanding Driver Service Award.

PTSI provides skilled assistance
Kathy Furneaux, executive director at the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute (PTSI), recommends that school bus operations give special attention to training drivers on loading and unloading, student management skills and defensive driving. She identifies loading and unloading as the most critical skill for children’s safety, with management of student behavior on board the bus running a close second.

In terms of maneuvering the bus, Furneaux emphasizes the importance of defensive driving practices, such as anticipating dangers in the road, keeping one’s eyes moving and maintaining enough space around the vehicle to avoid a collision. “We train our school bus drivers pretty well, and we’re pretty fastidious about getting them licensed and qualified to drive, then we put them out in an environment where there are a lot of amateurs driving vehicles,” she says. “So our professional drivers are in an environment where literally anything could happen at any moment, and quite often does.”

PTSI develops customized training programs for schools and transportation companies and sends trainers and materials out to sites across the country in order to train drivers, driver trainers, managers and even school administrators and business officials. “We can customize the training to address the issues that the contractor or district is facing,” Furneaux explains.

In addition, PTSI offers a wide variety of training resources for school bus operations, “ranging from something as simple as a handout for drivers or a brochure for parents all the way up to full-blown curriculums that address a specific aspect of driving a school bus and keeping kids safe,” Furneaux says.