Bus competition draws drivers from across the state

WARNER ROBINS -- There was plenty of competition at McConnell-Talbert Stadium on Wednesday, but it involved buses instead of football players.

The state bus Road-eo was held in the stadium parking lot for the sixth time, and it drew 49 drivers from 30 districts across the state. The purpose of the event is to sharpen the skills of the men and women taking children to and from school activities, said Cathy Benson, president of the state’s Pupil Transportation Safety Competition Foundation.

“We bring the best of the best throughout the state here to our competition, and the whole thing is about the safety of our students,” she said. “It’s to make our drivers the best that they can be and to protect our students 100 percent of the time.”

Several of the drivers were from Houston, Bibb and Jones counties, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they had an advantage. Houston County’s central location cuts down travel time for everyone, and many of the drivers have been there before.

“They’re professional bus drivers,” said Tom Walmer, director of transportation for Houston County schools. “A lot of them have won their district’s Road-eo multiple times, have been here multiple times.”

The Bibb County school district loaned out propane-fueled buses to use in the competition. Walmer said that gave drivers an early chance to get experience in one of the “greener” options that will become more prevalent in school districts in the future.

“It’s a huge difference; they’re so quiet,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but there’s several systems in the state” that have propane buses.

The contestants participated in 13 driving events, including parallel parking, weaving through a serpentine course and executing a right turn. Even the most simple tasks for a normal-size vehicle are challenging in a 35- to 40-foot bus, but preparing for and competing in Road-eos helps drivers with that, Benson said.

“With this type of event, you hone that skill,” she said.

One of the competitors was Tommy Sams, 45, who has been driving in Bibb County for 15 years after a nine-year stint in Twiggs County. He said the toughest event was the parallel park, because the organizers added an element of challenge to the task.

“The thing is they cover the back window where you can’t see out the back window,” he said. “You’ve got to have good judgment ... and the space is very limited.”

Sams said he’s enjoyed the chance to travel he’s gotten in more than two decades behind the wheel of a bus. He also hoped to improve on his 10th-place finish from last year and get one of the top two spots, which would earn him a trip to the national competition.

“I take much pride in it,” he said. “I don’t take it for granted. You learn a lot.”

The drivers will take a written and pre-trip test Thursday and then learn the final results. Benson, who competed in each of her 13 years as a driver, said the “competitive spirit” was tangible among the drivers.

“All bus drivers have that pride. There is a huge amount of energy and excitement out there,” she said. “They want to represent their district to the best of their ability, and they want to be No. 1 in the state.”

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.