By Janie Southard
What's the trick to backing an 8-foot wide school bus into a parking spot that's 8-foot 2-inches wide? Or what about stopping the 39-ton yellow monster within a few inches of the target line?
Practice, practice, practice is the trick -- and that's what five of Celina's school bus drivers are doing this week as they prepare for the School Bus District Road-E-O this Saturday at Bellefontaine's Ben Logan High School.
For drivers Wayne Fisher and Vickie Rhodes, with almost a quarter-century each on the road with the Celina school system, this will mark their 21st Road-E-O competition. For Jan Tincher, it's her 16th; for Carol Henderson, her 15th; and Garnet Babb is going for her fourth Road-E-O.
There's a lot more to driving a school bus than just getting up early, picking up kids at home and dropping them off at school. There's a procedure for everything and, at the Road-E-O, the drivers will be tested on most of it.
For example, before the bus rolls out in the morning the driver must perform a thorough pre-trip inspection of the engine and other areas of the bus. "There are easily more than 100 different things we have to check. And that's every time we go out, so it's at least two times a day," Tincher says.
Then there's delivering the kids home after school. The drivers go through a detailed safety speech to each kid who needs to cross the road, and then provide hand signals to the kid when it's okay to walk in front of the bus.
Fisher estimates he gives the speech more than 100 times a day. Doing the math, it amounts to at least 18,000 times a school year. And, one more time at the Road-E-O.
As for the actual skill driving, it's a series of road patterns that have been constructed especially for the event, like the diminishing clearance driving course. It begins at 10 inches wider than the bus and narrows down to only two inches wider -- that's one inch on either side, no small feat for a moving bus.
"You can't stop on the course of any of these driving tests or you'll lose points," Fisher says, as he positions his bus to go through the next test, maneuvering.
In this one there are pylons and barriers outlining a path, then a right turn of 10 feet to get to another pylon/barrier path. The distance between the two paths is 40 feet, which means the drivers have to maneuver 34-foot buses through the 40-foot lightning-bolt road pattern.
The Celina drivers executed the entire practice course Monday morning at the bus garage parking lot with few bumps; but there were times when the distance between the bus and the barriers was only a whisper.
Although the drivers say they always have a good time at the all-day Road-E-O, wearing wild hats, etc., they do take the event seriously just as they do their daily jobs.
"We are extremely proud of all of our bus drivers. They and the rest of the support staff are truly the backbone of our operations. The drivers perform safety sensitive jobs and do so with utmost pride, enthusiasm and dedication," said district Superintendent Fred Wiswell. "They are often the first and last smiling, caring face our students encounter in their day-to-day activities."