My Summer As A Student Bus Driver: Part One

In Spring 2013, I was lucky enough to obtain a position as a summer student bus driver for Durham Region Transit.

I like to think that I am a fairly un-distracted driver (though I admit to being a radio/ music adjuster), and a very good defensive driver in general, so in the winter of 2012, I decided to apply for the position for student bus driver and test my abilities…

After all, how hard could it be to drive a bus?

Looks easy, right?

Looks easy, right?

I could drive my own car one-handed, and often with many distractions present that I have little or no control over (unruly and silly friends for passengers being one of these distractions). I know bus drivers have a bit more on their plates, but picking up passengers and driving slightly under the speed limit shouldn’t be too hard.

Bus driver, Washington State

Bus driving has definitely changed…

I remember taking the bus all through high school and college (as early as about 7 years ago), and when I started my job, I immediately started to compare my experiences in the past on the bus to what I’ve been learning in my training as a bus driver. I also started to compare the technology (or lack thereof) in buses that I remember in the past, to today’s technological improvements. I’ve noticed many new features that are quite handy for passengers; many of the improvements positively affect accessibility, mobility, and seating. Others make necessary driver-passenger communications much clearer and simpler.

For example, over the years, ramps and the ability to make buses kneel have been added to buses, making it easier for those with wheelchairs, scooters and strollers to get on board. Furthermore, seating arrangements have been adapted so that people in wheelchairs and scooters, as well as strollers, can be safely secured to the bus, via collapsible seats and safety straps. Now transit buses have two sets of doors, which also helps the flow of human traffic on the bus move much more smoothly. There are bike racks on the front of the buses so that cyclists can hop on buses and bring their bikes with them as well:

The buses are wide (8.5 feet wide) and much longer than they used to be (transit buses in Durham Region are 40-42 feet in length), and so can fit more people.

Passengers can request the bus to be stopped at certain bus stops on the route by either pulling on a string that runs around the inner perimeter of the bus, or by pushing any of the buttons on the bar handles, instead of having to come up to the front of the bus or holler at the driver to stop. For the driver, the radio communications systems have been updated, so that drivers can change the channel to pick up different headquarters locations’ radio channels; this is useful for buses that are used at different locations. For example, a bus may be based at the Oshawa location for the winter, and only run Oshawa routes, so it wouldn’t need contact with the Ajax location’s radio channel, but then the bus might be brought over to Ajax for a few months, and wouldn’t need the Oshawa location’s channel. Additionally, inter-city buses need to communicate with the GO Buses for transfers and the like.

And, of course, bus drivers are no longer required to personally handle fare payments; there is a cash box for passengers to insert their cash payments, a slot for the paper tickets, a garbage can for transfer papers (although this is not a new technology improvement), and a ‘tap-and-go’ payment method for people with a specific payment plan (in Durham Region, we are using a system called Presto, which is also used by GO Train/GO Bus systems). Transfers are printed out with a time stamp, and are valid for 2 hours from the time stamp, in any direction; this saves time and paper, as well as avoiding confusion with transfer time validity!

Drivers too, are reaping the benefits from technology advancements. Over the years, bus drivers have developed work-related injuries from the strain of sitting for long periods of time in an uncomfortable, poorly adjusted chair and with an awkward steering wheel. Now though, these strains have been greatly reduced, and even eliminated. The seats have what’s called Lumbar Support, which involves the driver being able to adjust how much support his or her back has, what angle they sit back at in the chair, the height of the seat from the floor, and the distance from the pedals. As well, the steering wheel can be angled back towards the driver’s lap, and lowered or raised to suit the height of the driver. The drivers also use easy-to-push foot pedals for directional signaling, instead of a handle; this greatly improves how much space the driver has, as many of the bus’s controls are on either side of the wheel, and a directional signal handle would just get in the way. As well, bus drivers are constantly having to move the wheel to adjust the vehicle, use a specific handle for operating the doors, and many other actions that require both hands. (Also, the left foot isn’t doing anything else when you’re driving, so why not use all four limbs for driving?)

Buses have also been equipped with 2 mirrors on each side of the bus, to help the driver see beside the bus and slightly behind it too (this is done using convex mirrors). These convex mirrors aren’t all-seeing, unfortunately, but they really do help the driver position the bus, monitor the traffic behind them, and also monitor pedestrians, cyclists, and oncoming/leaving passengers.

Left Side Transit Bus mirror view


The braking system in buses run on air, and provide multiple advantages, especially when the driver needs to stop the heavy vehicle in an emergency. Air brakes have the service brakes (in a car, this is the regular brakes) and a spring brake (in the car this is the backup parking brake), and since air is used in the air brake system and is compressed, an air leak would not cripple the system. In the hydraulic braking system that smaller vehicles use (cars, trucks, SUV’s, etc), there is no compression, so if there is an air leak, the brakes are rendered quite useless. And since buses are so big, they can carry multiple air tanks (which are able to fill themselves with air outside) to supply the bus with air for various functions. The brakes have gotten smoother since a decade ago, although not as smooth as the brakes in cars; this is due to how the brake system works in vehicles with air brakes. While there is some graduation of how much you are pressing on the brakes, even the slightest bit of pressure is extremely noticeable to both the driver and passengers. From my own experiences in the past on the bus (and because I get intense car/motion sickness when I’m a passenger in a vehicle and the driver brakes roughly—this is my empathy shining through), I have made it my mission to provide smooth braking so others don’t suffer…. And because I don’t want to be the one who wears down the brakes too much!

There are so many sensors on buses that I can’t even count them all- sensors for the spring brakes, the service brakes, compressor governor cut-in and cut-out settings, air brake loss, fire, overheating, bike rack, windshield wipers, doors, signals, and so on. So if something is wrong with the bus, often the bus’s sensors will detect the problem before the driver can sense that something is not right (as long as all the necessary checks and tests have been completed before operating the vehicle). This is important, as bus drivers are usually not trained on advanced mechanics of buses, only rudimentary stuff such as the daily brake tests, identifying key parts, and doing a ‘circle check’ (and even then, the operator is only supposed to report the issue and check out another bus, while a mechanic works on the defective bus). And there are also so many controls on a bus that I can’t even remember them all at this point (and thankfully I don’t really have to use even half of them even semi-regularly!).

Overall, buses are pretty loaded with technology. The first time I drove a transit bus, I was pretty overwhelmed with the amount of gadgets and settings I could control, just from the dashboard alone.

And from evaluating other bus drivers and myself during my training, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good driver really has no way of incorporating physical technology distractions such as cell phones into their driving habits, without hitting something or someone, or missing multiple stops (admittedly, the previously linked article does focus on school bus drivers, as opposed to transit bus drivers, but the idea is the same). As a bus driver, you’re just way too busy:

–          Looking ahead 15 seconds along your path/route

–          Monitoring pedestrians, vehicles, and cyclists

–          Watching out for the next bus stop

–          Maneuvering in traffic around corners and tight spaces

–          Helping customers with various questions, minding when they want to get on and off, and dealing with irate customers

–          ‘Rocking and Rolling’ in the seat to give yourself better views of your surroundings and angles in the mirrors, and to avoid your blind spots

… and that’s on a regular day in regular traffic!

I can honestly say I have a new-found respect for bus drivers (and I highly suggest that everyone else take any chance they can to try bus driving, or at least the training for bus driving! It’s surprising to see how different and challenging bus driving can be), and have noticed my driving habits and road courtesy habits have drastically changed too. I always make room for incoming buses, make sure I stay far enough behind them (and transport trucks for that matter) so that I can see the vehicle’s mirrors (which in turn means those vehicles’ drivers can see me), and have become much more patient and defensive while driving.

And overall, I find driving regular vehicles much easier now that I have learned to maneuver buses in tight areas with heavy traffic.

This post has been re-posted here at, initially published by the same author at a different URL.  Original Posting Date: June 27, 2013


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