I have participated in an annual school bus safety Road-e-o, nine or ten times, over the course of my sixteen year driving career. Nine, with my current school district, Centerville, and one with the first school district I drove for, Aurora. For those of you that may not be familiar with, School Bus Road-e-o’s, it is a driving and safety competition that gives school bus drivers an opportunity to demonstrate their driving abilities, their knowledge of state ordinances, as well as their ability to recognize potential mechanical malfunctions that may arise.
These competitions occur on three levels, a regional level, a state level, and a national level. A driver must first participate at the regional level and place as one of the top six competitors, to advance to the state Road-e-o. Only the top two drivers from each state will move on to the national driving event, though the top six drivers are eligible to participate. The state will only reimburse fees and travel expenses for the top two qualifiers.
The first Road-e-o I participated in, took place in Streetsboro, Oh. There were over 100 drivers from the North region, and if memory serves me correctly, I believe there were 117 participants. My knowledge of this event, was as limited, as I was new to the school bus driving industry. I knew very little about what we would be doing that day and had less than a year of actual driving experience under my belt. I did very little to prepare for the competition that day, and it didn’t take long to realize that the people participating in this event, took this driving competition very seriously.
While standing in line waiting to sign in for the competition, there were a host of drivers sporting their roadeo garb. Some, even went so far as to put on real leather chaps and ten gallon hats. For a moment, I wondered if I had wandered into the wrong location and what I was getting myself into. Would the joke be on me when I walked out to the event location to find horses and lasso’s instead of school busses? No, it was just some very enthusiastic drivers, eager to compete in their field of expertise. As for me, I was just a clueless green nosed new-be, who probably had no business participating in the event. Then again, every driver in attendance was, at one point or another, a rookie, first time participant.
My finishing position was neither noteworthy nor memorable, but I do remember, and was grateful, for not finishing in last place, or even in the bottom third. What I did, discover, was that I enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow drivers, the challenge of the events, and, of course, the competition itself. A job relocation would put a hold on my Road-e-o participation for nearly three years.
I was excited to learn that the new school district I started driving for, participated in a regional Road-e-o, and even more excited to have twelve coworkers participating as well. It would be a first for most of them, and they were as eager as I was to show off our mad driving skills. Our performance that first year, was lackluster, though I must say, completely entertaining.
Once you have finished driving the course portion of the competition, you are allowed to go and watch any remaining team members compete. As luck would have it, I was an earlier driving participant and was able to watch several of my teammates, strut their stuff on the obstacle course. There are two types of busses a driver has the option of driving. You can choose either a conventional bus or transit style bus. One of my coworkers, decided to compete in the Road-e-o by driving a transit bus(flat nosed bus) over a conventional bus. Now, the district we drive for had only three transit busses in its fleet of 120, and those three transit busses were being phased out, which meant we had minimal driving exposure on a transit bus. Perhaps this may not have been the wisest choice for Steve, but his choice, nonetheless. His choice was not completely mental, he was, afterall, a former firefighter. He had experience driving a large transit type vehicle. Anyway, one of the driving events, is called, offset alley. The objective is to simulate a bus transitioning from one alley to another. At the road-e-o, it was done this way…
A ten foot long barrier is set up on the left hand side, while opposite of the ’12 opening and barrier, a series of four, 48″ cones set one foot apart. Once the bus travels between the first “12 foot opening, it must enter a second set of barriers, set up with the opposite configuration of the former set of barriers, set in an offset angle.
My coworker, Linda, and I, were standing in one of the appropriated viewing areas of the course, which gave us only the rear view of our coworker, Steve, maneuvering through the offset alley portion of the course. Steve entered the first portion of the obstacle with ease, only nicking the final cone as he went to transition from barrier to barrier. It was when he entered the second barricade that things got—interesting. From behind, it looked as if Steve had been doing fairly well, that was, until he continued forward from the event. With each turn of the wheel, a cone would pop out from the rear duals. When the first cone popped out from between the rear dual wheels of the bus, my teammate, Linda and I cringed, just a bit, but after the second cone flopped out and then another and yet another, we just howled with laughter at the sight of all those cones squirting out from his rear duals. We may not have had the stellar finish we had been hoping for that day, but the day, the event and that moment were truly memorable ! That story, is shared with all new first year participants.
Our results that year were not bad, but not good either, a middle of the pack team finish with no individual state qualifiers. The following year, our collective, team score, was good enough to take a second place team finish, but still denied a coveted individual state qualifier. The third year, however, was a different story. It would be our first, first place team victory, and at long last, we would break into one of the top six individual driving positions. Jim Reason placed fourth in the region, earning his way to state. It would also be the first year that I became one of three state alternates. Meaning, that if one or more of the top six drivers from our region was unable to participate, I would be eligible to participate in the state Road-e-o. As it turned out, no alternates were needed that year at state, so there would be no state Road-e-o driving for me.
Our Centerville team, kept improving. The following year, 2008, we had our very first regional Road-e-o winner and first place team win! My coworker and teammate, Linda Wendling, was the big winner that year, earning top regional honors, and a place on our regions’ state team. Once again, I found myself falling just short of earning a place on the West region state team, by placing 7th…or, as I looked at my final score and the score of the sixth place finisher, with only five points seperating our final scores, I was quite literally, a horn honk away from reaching state.
It would be two more years before I would earn my way to state. If nothing else, I was consistent. I consistently came in seventh place, falling just shy of where I needed to be to compete at the next level. That saying, always a bridesmaid, never a bride was becoming my mantra. Being the competitive person that I am, the outcome was not making me happy. I was good, but not quite good enough.
That following year, I had a fairly crummy attitude and was not really in the mood to participate, in the upcoming regional Road-e-o, but, we had some new drivers, whom I encouraged to participate in the event, and who were reluctant to participate if I would not be participating as well. Not quite blackmail, in their methodology, but effective in getting me to participate that year. I am not quite sure how, but at some point over the duration of my participation in the Road-e-o, over the years, I had somehow managed to become the unofficial Road-e-o team leader. Probably more like the consummate cheer-leader. Regardless, I reluctantly chose to participate that year.
Well, surprise, surprise, surprise…guess who made it to state that year. Not as an alternate, not a bridesmaid, but a bonafide sixth place finish, earning my very own place on the West region state bound Road-e-o team. When they announced the three alternate places, before reading off the top six state finalists, I inwardly thought, huh, not even an alternate finish this year. I was shocked, to say the least, when my name was announced as one of the top six drivers. I had become so accustomed to finishing just shy of the top six that I had very little confidence in my ability to climb any higher. I was not the only one to make it to state that year. My coworker, Jacob, came in third place, and our team took first place in the team competition.
There are two weeks that separate the regional competition from the state competition. Two weeks to continue honing my driving skills, brush up for a written exam, and, two weeks of mentally torturing myself.
The day arrived, my very first state Road-e-o competition. I was excited and unbelievably nervous. For many, myself included, when I know that I am being judged or tested, my nerves take over and I find myself chocking, crazy, but true. I would be doing things that, in general, I do on a daily basis. I pre trip my bus daily, I pick up and drop off kids daily, shoot, I could probably do that in my sleep. I am an on board instructor, for crying out loud, I teach this stuff! There are some maneuvers and obstacles that we do not teach, but over the years, I had practiced these maneuvers regularly and quite frankly performed them perfectly dozens, if not hundreds of times.
There are eight regions in the state of Ohio with six drivers representing each region. The state competitions are generally held in the Columbus area. Once all drivers are registered, we are taken outside to walk the course. The events are in a specific order and must be followed in that precise order, or demerits are given. When an event is completed out of order or skipped altogether, you earn demerits. The driver with the highest score, and fewest demerits, wins the competition. The more demerits you receive, the further down in the standing you go.
There was an opening speech given by a former state and national Road-e-o winner. I am paraphrasing his remarks, but they went a bit like this. All of you are winners, you are the best of the best, representing your region and the state of Ohio. That being said, this is a competition and ultimately, one of you will come in first place and one of you will finish last. He went on to tell us that he was probably one of the few people who could say that he placed dead last his first year at state and came back the very next year to win not only the state competition, but to go on to nationals and win that title as well. I could relate, to his comments. My goal that year, was not lofty. As a matter of fact, the only thought that kept running through my mind was…I don’t care where I place, as long as I’m not dead last!
Each driver is issued a number when they register. That number is not only their contestant number, but also represents the order in which they will drive the obstacle course portion of the competition. That year, I was participant number three, which also meant that I would be the third driver out on the course…talk about nerve-racking!
The first course event, was the, forward stop line. Sounds easy and in general, it is. You need to stop as close as you can without the bumper of your bus touching the white line. If you come within two inches of the line, you receive all the points and no demerits are given. The further away from the white line you are, the more demerits you receive. The event that immediately followed, was the backward serpentine. You weave your bus between a series of barrels, while driving backward, in a continuous motion. If your forward motion stops, you alter your direction, or make contact with any of the barrels, demerits are awarded. Next up, was depth perception and the remaining events.
The course was set up on a high school parking lot and, as with any parking lot there are many lined spaces, all of them white. Our first event was stopping on a white line. Too bad I chose the wrong white line to stop on. Since I stopped at the wrong white line, I ended up setting myself up ten feet short for the backward serpentine event, making it nearly impossible for me to complete the event without stopping, altering my path, or hitting a barrels. It got to the point where I thought they were motioning me forward from the event and in doing so, I completely skipped the depth perception event. I entered the diminishing clearance event and hit four of the five flags. In the turn around event, I hit every barrier. The right side barrier as I was backing in, while backing, I neglected to stop before hitting the rear barrier, then, just for good measure, hit the left side barrier on the way out. I really didn’t think things could get any worse but my lesson in humility continued. I managed to mess up my rail road crossing, something I had never done before and I skipped another entire event when I passed by pulling to a curb. I did one thing perfectly that day. I managed to perform my pick up and drop off without receiving a single demerit. It looked as though I was on the fast track to earning that, dead last honor, though I still had the written exam and the pre trip portions to take part in.
At the time, the pre trip portion of the competition was set up for the participant to find ten specific defects on a school bus in an allotted time frame. I believe we were given eight minutes to locate the defective part and explain what was wrong with it. The final aspect of the competition, was a written exam covering general mechanical knowledge and state ordinances. Let’s just say…it just wasn’t my day. I did end up placing dead last that day. The following year, however, I returned to state, and finished in a respectable place 18th.
I came in second place in our regional Road-e-o, this year, a personal best for me. It just so happened, that the Road-e-o took place on my birthday, which also happened to be a big milestone birthday, as well. It will certainly be remembered as one of my most memorable birthdays of all time. I finished the state Road-e-o, with a personal best, as well, this year. I placed sixth in the state, which made me eligible to attend the national competition, which is taking place in North Carolina in July. I opted not to attend nationals this year, and will go when I earn my way there with a first or second place finish at the state event.
I have been asked a number of times, why I continue to participate in an unpaid, voluntary event, particularly, one that consumes countless hours of practice, research and studying. My reply…aside from being a fierce competitor, I enjoy the camaraderie of my coworkers the challenge of driving, and staying current on local and state ordinances. I also believe that in doing so, I have become a better, safer driver, not only my district, but for the community, and, most importantly, my kids.
If you are a driver, and have the opportunity to participate in a school bus Road-e-o, I encourage you to do so. Not a driver? You can check out your states local competition which is usually held the last weekend in April. T