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Learning To Drive The Big, Yellow Bus

Escambia County

We revisit this 2019 story from Dave Dunwoody about learning to drive a school bus.

With news of the school bus driver shortage in Escambia County, we revisit this 2019 story from WUWF's Dave Dunwoody who had a turn behind the wheel, as part of a driver recruitment effort.

Members of the media were invited out to the Escambia County District’s school bus training range at George Stone Technical College on a picture-perfect morning. But – had it been raining, we still would have driven, since school buses also transport during inclement weather.

My instructor for the session was Gene Barton; himself a school bus driver who trains other prospective drivers, and is a Commercial Driver’s License — or CDL — tester for the School District. The skills portion of the training is on a brand-new asphalt course, with white lines and orange traffic cones in strategic places.

“We have straight-line backing; we have offset backing which is either offset to the left or offset to the right, we have alley docking, which you back around and into an alley,” said Barton. “Then we have conventional and sight side parking that we teach. This course also teaches you how to do a student drop, which is part of the road test itself. “

After a short briefing, it was go-time.

“You press on the button here; then you move it down to drive,” Barton began his instruction. “And then you have to push hard on the brake; now the parking brake is off. We’re going to go straight ahead to the reference line that’s out here going left and right.”

The buses provided were some sweet rides — brand-new, 2019 Internationals, which carry 77 passengers and feature state-of-the-art safety and high-def cameras — price tag, $120,000.

After getting into position, Barton had me make an offset parking maneuver – parallel parking at an angle.

“So what you want to do is turn the wheel one complete turn to the left; here the back of the bus goes the same way as the front of the bus, whichever way you turn the wheel,” Barton told me. “Now, you want to slowly back up; and then watch your cones in both mirrors, left and right. And of course, the object is not to encroach on the yellow lines or hit the cone.”

Paying attention to the mirrors was a bit of a challenge. There were seven of them on this bus, which provided a panoramic view of the cones and pavement markings from the sides and behind. Next up, a little parallel parking, a tad different in a bus compared to the mid-sized car from my high school Drivers’ Ed course in 1971.

“We’re going to start backing up, and with our back right wheel we’re going to stop on just this side of the cone,” Barton said. “What you want to do is you want to turn your wheel all the way to the right. We’ve already passed one cone; we’re looking for the next cone that shows itself right in the middle of that bottom to you where you’re sitting. Go to the next cone, real slow.”

The 30-minute exercise went off without a hitch – thanks to Barton’s expert instruction. No traffic cones were harmed, and the bus came through unscathed.

“I am hoping to bring on as many drivers as this message reaches; honestly, if 30 people showed up today ready to take the class we will sign them up and we will get them headed on the path to become a school bus operator,” said Steve Harrell, director of transportation for the Escambia County School District.

While they’ve almost reached their full complement of drivers for the 300-vehicle fleet, substitute drivers are also being sought. All must meet certain standards, beginning with a “fairly clean” driving record.

“And by ‘fairly clean if you have a minor speeding ticket, we can work with you on that,” Harrell said. “Now, if you have DUI convictions that’s not going to fly; but we can talk about it. You have to have your driver’s license for five years, prior to getting a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and a school bus certification. But if you have that, come see us.”

Starting pay is $12.46 per hour. Qualified applicants will undergo a physical by the Florida Department of Transportation; classroom training, first-aid certification including CPR, drug testing, and an on-the-road driving test.

For more information on becoming an Escambia County School bus driver, contact the District Transportation Training and Safety Office at 469-5328; or apply in person at the Transportation Office, 100 E. Texar Dr. in Pensacola.