Driving a school bus is serious business. That’s what makes the annual School Bus Road-e-o so much fun for those charged with delivering students to school in the mornings and taking them back home in the afternoon.
More than two dozen professional child chauffeurs tested their driving skills Monday (February 20) on an obstacle course laid out in the parking lot of Escambia County High School, where competitors guided their cumbersome coaches through situations they are unlikely to encounter on their daily routes.
The course included navigation of narrow traffic lanes without disturbing flags that extended into the lanes, negotiation of sharp curves and backing into a narrow parking space without hitting a makeshift wall. The drivers had to conduct a pre-trip inspection before attacking the course, where they also had to exhibit their knowledge of procedures they must follow at railroad crossings and student pickup areas, as well as their expertise at parallel parking.
Each of the 28 drivers was serious in his or her attempt to master the course and avoid hitting any of the traffic cones that served as an outline. But each also enjoyed the humor in his or her own failures, along with those of the drivers against whom they were competing.
“This course is a precision course, not like driving out on the road,” explained Billy Mills, who is in his third year as foreman of the Atmore Bus Shop. “We don’t make these tight turns; we don’t back up in a 10-foot-wide spot; if they back one up, it’s in a 50-foot-wide spot. It (the road-e-o) is good for them to test their abilities, and for the fellowship. It’s a friendly competition that’s good for morale, and everybody can laugh at each other.”
Mona Simmons, Director of Transportation and Human Resources for the county school system, said she would like to broaden the competition, but noted that the event is part of each driver’s required training.
“This is a professional development day for our drivers,” she pointed out. “I would love to invite the other districts around us, but I don’t ever know when their professional development days are scheduled.”
Simmons and Assistant Superintendent Beth Drew were the only county education officials to attend the event, which last year drew several. Drew’s interest in the road-e-o was based upon her past participation in such an event.
“I just came by to see how they were doing,” she said. “This is really neat. I was in one of these several years ago, and I tied for first place in the state. The boy who beat me was Ray Chance, and it went to a tiebreaker, which was a written test all about mechanical stuff. Driving, I beat him, but …”
Ward International, from whom the local school system recently purchased 33 new buses, was the primary sponsor of the event. Some company employees helped judge the competition, while others grilled hamburgers and hot dogs to feed the hungry horde of competitors and judges. The bus dealership also provided gift certificates for the top-three scorers from each shop.
“It’s awesome,” said Jeff Hicks, an outside sales rep whose territory includes Atmore and Brewton. “I’m glad to see that more drivers came out this year.”
Hicks helped judge the exercise, as did Atmore Fire Department personnel, school system employees, Escambia County Sheriff’s Office personnel, Flomaton Police Department officers and a scattering of others.
Toni White, one of 16 drivers from the Atmore shop to take part in the training exercise, was participating in her second bus road-e-o. She gave herself a cautiously fair assessment.
“I guess I already knew the ropes a little,” White said. “I don’t think I hit any cones; if I did, they didn’t tell me.”
Along with White, the Atmore contingent included Paul Pearson, Carolyn Pearson, Clint Smith, Earl Weaver, Betty Warren, Melvin Byrd, Jean Montell, Floyd Sims, John Steadham, Kim Nall, Edward Curry, Amanda Blackburn, Lorraine Darnell, Bud Lambert and Allen Hart.
The list of Brewton shop drivers included Shannon Pettis, Tammy Nelson, Emmer Lowell, Tracy Riddle, Richard Robinson, Quincy Nearer, Kathleen Meadows, Paula Bell, Alex Booth, Larry Zangas, Gail Smith and Linda Gibson.
When the scores were tallied, the following drivers were declared the top three from each shop:
Atmore: First place, Paul Pearson; second place, Betty Warren; third place, Melvin Byrd.
Brewton: First place, Paula Bell; second place, Linda Gibson; third place, Quincy Nearer.
Gibson, who has been hauling children to and from school for 36 years, succinctly summed up the road-e-o experience.
“Just another day in Paradise,” she laughed after completing the course.