Drivers compete with propane school buses

jmink@macon.comJune 6, 2013 

KATHLEEN -- Patricia Smith stood under a tent Thursday, her hair soaked and her eyes glued to a yellow school bus as it tried to parallel park.

“It all comes down to the driving,” said Smith, a bus driver from Brantley County.

Smith was one of more than 60 school bus drivers who participated in a statewide bus driver safety competition at Veterans High School. And, for the first time, drivers competed with propane-fueled buses.

Despite rainy weather, drivers clustered outside the school, waiting to maneuver their assigned buses through 12 obstacles. They weaved around barriers, backed up between hurdles and parallel parked in tight corners. The top winners at Thursday’s event will go on to the national bus competition in Oklahoma.

The two-day contest officially began Wednesday with a written exam and bus inspection. Organizers planted defects on a bus, and each participant had 5 minutes to find the problems.

But for many, the most difficult part was Thursday’s obstacle course.

“It’s very tough. It’s a very tight course,” said Wiley Crews, president of the Public Transportation Safety Competition. “And it enhances their skills and safety. That’s our No. 1 goal.”

Drivers said they noticed few differences in the propane-fueled buses, though they were nearly silent compared to the others. Officials jumped at the chance to use Blue Bird propane buses from Hall and Appling county schools, and they’re gradually becoming more popular across the state, Crews said.

“We’re starting to see a little bit more of them,” he said.

Propane buses tend to be cheaper to operate because they save money in fuel costs. Also, emissions are cleaner and better for the environment, Crews said. Still, due to budget issues, most school districts have yet to invest in them.

That’s not the case for the Bibb County district, which has purchased 31 propane buses, Transportation Director Todd Harris said.

The district signed off on the buses for several reasons. Mainly, equipment and maintenance is cheaper with propane buses, and alternative fuel is better for the environment, Harris said.

Propane buses “are a huge benefit for Macon and Bibb County and the air quality around our schools,” he said.

Officials expect to receive the initial propane buses around the first of September. Regular propane buses cost about $109,000 each, and special needs buses are about $118,000, Harris said.

Like many bus drivers, Harris said the most noticeable difference is how quiet propane buses are compared to others.

Cynthia Layton was placed in bus No. 52 -- the same number as her bus in Madison County. Layton has competed before, saying she has learned valuable skills through such events.

“Throughout the (everyday) route, you go back to this,” she said, “and you remember what to do when you get in a pickle.”

Most drivers said the parallel parking obstacle was the most difficult. As rain splashed the area, drivers turned on their blinkers and slowly guided their vehicles between two obstacles, some of them bumping the hurdles.

“It helps you judge your mirrors,” Smith said. “If you don’t use your mirrors right, you’re not going to get nowhere.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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