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by Gail Marsh
(June 19)Most rodeos consist of bucking broncos and lots of cowboys, but the one held in Marion County this week featured yellow school buses and bus drivers.
The West Virginia School Bus Safety Road-E-O held its annual competition at Middletown Mall on Wednesday and Thursday, drawing 133 school bus drivers from around the state.
"We've found that events like these improve driving skills and promote safety awareness. That's really what it's all about," said Wayne Clutter, director of transportation and facilities for the state Department of Education.
Drivers spent Wednesday looking for vehicle defects during a bus inspection test, and got the chance to drive an obstacle course on Thursday.
Clutter said the buses were intentionally rigged with five defects, and drivers had eight minutes to make an inspection of the vehicle to find the problems. Drivers who found all five defects were awarded bonus points.
"These are critical things on a daily bus run, such as a burned-out light or a defective horn. They could endanger kids' lives if they aren't taken care of," Clutter said.
The driving course was set up on the back lot at the mall, complete with a simulated railroad crossing. Drivers were tested in such scenarios as pupil loading, left turns, backing up and parallel parking.
Clutter said any full-time school bus driver who had not been involved in a preventable collision in the last year and won at the local level could take part in the state event.
"Any time a bus touches, scrapes or bumps an object or individual, regardless of the severity of the outcome, it's considered a collision. We're pretty strict on that," he said.
Marjorie George, a driver from Barbour County, found four of the five defects on Wednesday's test, but said she was nervous about driving the obstacle course.
"You get so nervous that you forget everything you know," she said.
Alice Hayhurst, a 24-year driving veteran from Wetzel County, was attending her second Road-E-O. Though a little apprehensive about the competition, she said driving was the least of her daily problems.
"Just about anybody can learn to drive a bus, but keeping discipline is the hard part," she said.
Jerry Burner, a driver from Barbour County who was waiting for his turn to drive the obstacle course, had his own slant on his work.
"It helps to be a little crazy. It's not an easy job to discipline students while driving a bus, and sometimes parents feel you are picking on their kids. But we just want to get the kids there safely," he said.
Though many of the drivers sported street clothes or traditional uniforms, the Boone County drivers let their individuality show.
The front of their canary yellow T-shirts said "Bus Drivers Have Eyes in the Back of Their Heads," while the back showed a student with a rubber band stretched between his fingers, and the slogan warned, "Don't Even Think About It."
The competition concluded early Thursday afternoon. The Road-E-O winners included:
Large conventional category, Billy Wiseman, Kanawha County; small conventional category, Nancy Fields, Kanawha County; transit winner, David Thornsbury, McDowell County, and special needs winner (team), Pamela Reynolds and Theresa Smearman, both of Wood County.
These drivers are eligible to take part in the Southeastern States Road-E-O, held this year in Moundsville at the end of the month.