May 5, 2008
Bus drivers buckle up for rodeo
Event at BOCES McEvoy Center tests drivers’ skill, knowledge
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Homer bus driver Jon VanDenburg signals that he is backing up by sounding the horn while negotiating an obstacle during a bus rodeo competition Saturday at the McEvoy Education Center in Cortlandville.
CORTLANDVILLE — School bus drivers at Saturday’s bus rodeo competition at the BOCES McEvoy Center had a difficult time turning their buses between rows of tennis balls without hitting any of the balls.
“That’s called a touch,” volunteer and Preble resident Pete Stone said when Homer schools bus driver Kevin Robbins hit one of the tennis balls with his bus. “It’s a five-point deduction from the 20 points (for the station).”
Robbins, 45, who is going to bus rodeo nationals in Canada this summer for his performance last year, and 22 other bus drivers at local school districts, tested their bus driving skills at Saturday’s event. Drivers represented the Homer, Cortland, Fayetteville-Manlius, McGraw, Moravia and Tully school districts.
The purpose of the event, which included two written tests and a 10-station driving obstacle course, is to fine-tune skills, volunteers said.
“It’s to have fun and build confidence and be safe,” volunteer Sue Kilmer, 47, said. Kilmer is also a bus driver with the Homer school district.
Rich Rogers, one of the organizers of Saturday’s event and transportation supervisor for the Homer school district, said this is the 17th year a bus rodeo has been hosted at a Cortland-area location.
The event is put on by the Cortland Regional Local School Bus Rodeo organization, whose members mainly consist of Homer and Cortland school district bus drivers.
Participants get points for their performance. The top three finishers from each participating school district go on to a regional bus rodeo competition.
The top three finishers in that competition’s three divisions will go on to states and the top finisher for each of the three divisions will go on to nationals next summer.
Last year Robbins was the top finisher in the conventional division, winning a trip to the nationals this summer.
The obstacle course, which involved parallel parking and other tests, was the biggest challenge, bus drivers said.
“I think I did better with lights and safety than backing up, because you don’t do that so much,” said Lisa Conger, 37. “The backing up was tough, even nerve-racking. The rest was OK.”
Conger will be starting as a bus driver for the Homer school district in September.
Becoming a bus driver requires intensive training, including five written tests and a driving test, said Judy Ripley, 59, a Moravia Central School bus driver who received her bus license a year ago.
Some districts test their drivers often, and drivers often must either adapt to new laws or district regulations, Moravia bus driver Julia “Pete” Thomas, 53, said.
The bus rodeo puts drivers’ abilities to the test, the women said. All drivers must drive a bus they are not used to driving for the obstacle course.
“You have to know how the buses turn,” Thomas said. “Some of them have bigger turn ratios and some of them are smaller.”
Homer driver John VanDenburg, 60, was disappointed he hit a number of tennis balls during the obstacle course, but overall he drove extremely well, said judge Jim Ellis, 60, a bus supervisor for the Moravia school district.
“Beautiful,” Ellis said after the ride with VanDenburg. “You did a wonderful job. Why don’t you drive for Moravia?”
Ellis said school buses are significantly safer than cars.
School buses are about seven times safer than passenger cars or light trucks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The research is based on occupant fatality rates per miles traveled.
“There is no job that’s more important because you couldn’t put a price on kids,” Robbins said.
The challenges underscore why the bus safety rodeos are valuable, bus drivers said.
The top three finishers at Saturday’s event were Homer school district bus driver Ron Dexter, who won first place; Homer school district bus driver Rebecca Forbes, who won second place; and Cortland school district bus driver Jordan Lilley, who won third place.
Despite his first place win, Dexter said he still made a handful of mistakes at Saturday’s event. The biggest challenge was the written test, he said.
“It makes us more aware, to pay attention how to read things,” Dexter said. “Some of the questions, if you read them a little off, there are two or three different meanings there.”
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