Bus driver training just got fun. From driving simulators to mock game shows, transit properties are showing potential and existing drivers that training is more than boning up on the DMV manual. The Orange County (Calif.) Transportation Authority (OCTA) has used its simulators for about two years. The first simulator is reactive, where the student reacts to what is seen on a screen. It is primarily used for defensive driving techniques, such as brake times, says Mark Andrews, a training instructor at OCTA.

“It’s not just someone talking, it’s not just a video,” he says. “They actually get to interact with it.”

Students are taken through a city and have to react to such things as cars, pedestrians and signals. Different variables can be added to test a driver’s reactions to things like snow, ice, hills and blood alcohol levels. OCTA even shot scenes from the surrounding area to use in training so drivers are familiarized with their routes.

The other simulator OCTA uses is interactive, where the student is put into the cab of a bus and given the sensation of driving. While the student is behind the wheel of the bus in one room, a model bus in another room simulates his actions. The model town is set up with places to parallel park, turn corners and pull into a bus stop. Running over a cone will result in the driver experiencing the sensation that comes with hitting an object. In addition to the simulators, OCTA drivers are given some classroom training.

Most people coming in have not had any experience driving a bus, says Richard Wong, training manager at OCTA.

“It’s better if they don’t have prior training,” he says. “If they come from another property, they have bad habits.”

The three main goals of training, says Wong, are safety, making sure the student passes the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) test and customer service. All 1,000 of OCTA’s drivers must also go through annual required training for the renewal of their license. For eight hours, existing drivers have discussions with coworkers from risk management, OCTA’s police division and other drivers.

OCTA is not the only one to use driving simulators. Delaware’s Dart First State, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, New York City Transit, and New Jersey Transit also use them in training.

“We’ve seen a marked improvement in people who can do their initial training in a simulator,” says Jerry Masek of the Cleveland RTA. “It’s the first step in driver training.”

DART First State trains both fixed route and paratransit drivers with its simulator. Videos it uses include threat recognition, adverse weather, urban driving problems and effectively scanning the traffic environment.

Most of the above properties received their simulators from Doron Precision Systems. They cost about $150,000 to $200,000 and can be specialized.

“It’s a tool to enhance overall training,” says Dave Lindsey, vice president of Doron. “It provides a uniform program so all drivers get the same experience.”

And the Answer Is?

Using a game show style approach to learning proved successful for several properties.

About five years ago, Broward County (Fla.) Transit implemented a bus operator Jeopardy game using a board resembling the TV show version. Three teams made up of three operators answer questions relevant to Broward’s transit facility.

“This game inspired even the less than enthusiastic participant to get involved,” says Broward’s William Sorrells. “Toward the end, even that person was just as interested as the others. It actually became contagious.”

The game became so popular that it was converted to PowerPoint.

“Winners get little inexpensive type prizes that all of a sudden became cause for competition,” he says.

The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) in Detroit also uses a Jeopardy style game. Played before the day of the final test, participants answer questions in eight to 10 categories, including skills and maneuvering, fares, defensive driving and SMART facts.

“We have found that adding some fun is a break from the classroom type atmosphere,” says SMART’s Beth Gibbons.

Five teams compete against each other to answer questions that get progressively harder in each category. The team that answers the question correctly has to explain the rule reinforcing the information.

“It helps to be a good review of all the information the trainees have learned,” Gibbons says.

Addressing Problem Areas

While overall driver training is done by all transit properties, some found specific areas needing to be addressed and created programs around them. Realizing that collisions with cyclists and pedestrians are among the most expensive, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Austin, Texas, developed a training program around preventing those types of accidents.

The program, developed in-house by Metro’s Safety Coordinator Mark Ostertag, overviews traffic laws dealing with cyclists and pedestrians, gives statistics on the most common types of accidents and safe driving tips.

Because feedback from operators was so good, other transit agencies in the area, including Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) and the Houston Metro, adopted the program. After presenting the program to operators, bicycle and pedestrian accidents decreased 87% from the previous year. Ostertag adapted the program to apply to any type of driver and offered it through the National Transit Institute list server. Some tips on safe driving practices around bicyclists include:

  • Bicycles that have large boxes or other items on the back of the bike that obscure the driver’s view should not be placed on the bike racks.
  • Keeping your windshield clean, as required by CDL, is one of the best things that you can do to avoid collisions.
  • Save your horn. Some bicyclists are startled by honking.
  • Be alert to cyclists during left-hand turns. A cyclist is four times more likely to be hit by a motor vehicle that is turning left than by one turning right.

Another major cause of collisions is night driving, something GO Transit in Ontario, Canada, made the emphasis of its training. Two weeks out of GO’s seven-week training course are spent on night driving, says John Womersley, supervisor of driver safety and training.

“We’re comfortable that we can train anyone to drive a bus,” he says. He says that training students in night driving provides a better quality driver. GO also provides feedback sheets to drivers after training is completed so they can anonymously grade their experience.

“In most cases, it’s very positive,” Womersley says. “We hone training around the needs of the people we’re training. It’s imperative that everyone is on the same page when out there training.”

Training at the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) consists of classes dealing with difficult customers and ADA compliance. Operators take an eight hour class called “Strategies: Dealing With Difficult People” that involves role-playing. Since UTA operators are required to make ADA stop announcements at major intersections, they attend a 40 minute session on making the announcements and a five hour sensitivity training session where they learn to deal with people with various disabilities. Both sessions involve disabled people from the community and such exercises as using a wheelchair and walking while blindfolded.

Learning from Peers

Driver to driver mentoring is another technique that gives students a chance to learn from their peers rather than from an instructor. Winnipeg Transit in Manitoba, Canada, recently started its mentor program. The program was created to more thoroughly train bus operators, maintain a higher retention of new operators and provide a smoother transition into the workplace. Mentors for the program volunteer to participate to give them a chance to share their knowledge.

The new operator and their mentor must keep in contact during the first year of the operator’s employment. They are paired up based on many factors, including gender and cultural diversity. The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro) in Texas also began a mentor program. Existing operators are paid to mentor new drivers during their 90-day probation period.

“It enhances the training program,” says Tom Greufe, Metro’s director of safety and training. “It helps to keep people and improve their skills.”

The Metro also set up a skills course for drivers to practice their driving techniques. “More than half of the people we get haven’t driven a bus before,” Greufe says. “It’s very successful with getting them familiar with driving a larger vehicle.”

The course emphasizes mirror points and the size of the vehicle to test distance and spacing judgement. The Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) in Albany, N.Y., developed a peer training program called Customer Appreciate Results in Excellent Service (CARES). The goal of the program is to give operators the skills they need to provide excellent customer service, as well as promote leadership skills and involve and empower employees, says Betsy Voss, the CDTA’s director of training. Ten bus operators volunteered to be trained to run classroom discussions for the eight-hour program.

“Having their fellow operators as the facilitators gave immeasurable validity to the CARES program,” Voss says.

Training and Re-Training

It seems transit agencies across the United States are continuously developing ways to better train their drivers.

The Los Angeles County Metro-politan Transportation Authority (MTA) is in the process of creating, in-house, computer training programs. The programs will provide students information on such things as the MTA’s rule book, the skills test for the DMV and pre-trip inspection techniques.

“It’s done after hands-on training to supplement, not reduce, the amount of training,” says Grace Golden, the MTA’s assistant manager of operations central instructor.

The software created by the MTA was not yet introduced to students, but, once it is, they will be able to take tests to enhance what they learned in class, Golden says. The software is fully interactive, detailing parts of the bus with hot spots the user can click on to get more information.

Re-training current drivers is just as important as training new ones. DART developed a mandatory, two-day retraining course focusing on defensive driving, bus operator rules and regulations and customer service. It also covers bus safety rules, how to respond to emergency situations and how to handle charters and special events.

“The course is essential for operators because it helps to refresh their driving skills and keep them abreast of policy changes,” says Morgan Lyons, manager of media relations at DART. The JUMP START program is done in addition to regular safety updates and training done when new buses are put into service. It is required every two years and about 20 operators and supervisors are trained.

“A fresh mind makes you more aware when operating any vehicle, and this course makes sure operators are always up to speed on how to handle the bus and customers,” says Milton Green, a DART bus operator for 21 years. Once training is complete, the students must pass a driving test and are rated on their appearance, use of proper signals, ability to control wheelchair lifts and situational awareness.

Training Maintenance Staff

For the smooth operation of a transit agency, training maintenance staff is just as important as training bus drivers. To assist in that training, the Nashville Auto-Diesel College recently began a public transit curriculum that trains technicians at their own transit shops. Courses include air conditioning and 608 certification, hydraulics, electricity and preventive maintenance. Technicians are taught with a combination of textbooks (developed by the college) and hands-on training.

“The courses are geared toward basics but apply to a guy who’s been out there a long time and needs a refresher,” says Dick Reed, operations coordinator for the college.

Each class ranges from two-and-a-half to five days and is taught onsite at properties throughout the United States.

“It’s better to go to the property,” Reed says. “Transit operations are interested in contact. We determine what they need, a schedule and a price.”

The average cost of a class is $750 to $800 per day, including travel for instructors and equipment used for hands-on learning.

Future courses may include those on transmissions, diesel engines and anti-lock brakes.

Recruiting Drivers Means Knowing Your Market

Before any training can begin, transit properties face the sometimes difficult task of hiring drivers. Facing a shortage of 160 operators, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro) in Texas began an advertising blitz to recruit drivers. Ads were place on billboards and at job fairs and churches, as well as in different media.

“We wanted to make as many inroads as we can,” says the Metro’s Patti Muck. “We tried to stress the benefits of being a driver.”

Both employees and the public are offered incentives for referring someone who is hired. Employees can receive up to $500 and the public $50. Those efforts paid off with an average of 12 students starting in training each week since the beginning of the year. Of those, 10 are graduated weekly.

“We’re making headway but we’re still losing drivers through attrition,” she says. Montebello Bus Lines in California had a shortage lasting a year and a half, with entire training classes resigning before they were complete. That trend was reversed with advertising in local media, targeting new markets through the Internet and welfare to work publications and increasing wages.

“The money worked for us. We saw an increase in morale immediately,” says Lisa Carriveau of ATC, the contractor for Montebello. “It helped retain existing drivers and brought some rehires as well. Employees didn’t really want to leave, they just wanted more money.”

With 2.5% unemployment in Santa Clarita Valley, where Montebello is located, the pool of qualified candidates was small, Carriveau says. Nationwide, drivers account for 65% of the transit workforce and 75% of turnover, she says. One-third of the driver workforce is trainees, but 67% of those leave in the first year, mostly for higher paying jobs, she says.

Some strategies Carriveau offers for recruiting and maintaining drivers are:

  • Recognize the warning signs early on if drivers are quitting.
  • Maintain open lines of communication, both internally and externally.
  • Know the job market.
  • Analyze potential job enhancements.
  • Be proactive and not reactive.

When Maureen Chrystal was hired as a recruiter at Santa Monica’s (Calif.) Big Blue Bus, she was given the task of hiring 25 trainees in two months. To do that, she increased exposure by advertising in newspapers and distributing fliers, as well as targeting the recruitment campaign through job fairs and cards on the interior of the buses.

“We recruit for excellence and growth,” Chrystal says. “We make the organization recognized as a place people want to be.”

Recruiting drivers became about hiring people with good customer service skills. Chrystal found it also helped to treat applicants like customers, giving them personal attention, and tightening the screening process.

“Skills training is easier than changing attitudes,” she says.

One of the keys, she says, is to overhire people at the beginning of the process.

“There are many different points at which you’re going to lose people,” she says.