Back-Seat Driver

How hard is it to drive a bus? The Back-seat Driver just found out

I’ve always thought of myself as pretty skilled behind the wheel. Not so much last week.

I competed in the annual Unitrans bus skills contest in Davis, driving a 40-foot commercial bus through an obstacle course. It turns out my skill set basically consists of veering off course and squishing traffic cones, all at a snail’s pace.

Unitrans operates a fleet of sleek red buses on the UC Davis campus and city streets, delivering students to school and local residents to jobs. It’s known for running a handful of picturesque double-decker buses imported from London as part of its fleet.

But, to me, what’s more noteworthy about Unitrans is that it is one of the few transit agencies that employs student drivers. In fact, all of its bus drivers and many of its managers are UC Davis students, some still in their teens. (My daughter Amelia is one. She’s the one who suggested I drive in the skills contest, since I write about transportation for The Bee.)

To become a driver, students must earn a state Class B commercial driver’s license and complete 120-plus hours of training. That includes parallel parking.

Teri Sheets, an assistant general manager for Unitrans, said it’s not about age and experience, it’s about being responsible, disciplined and able to deal with the public while navigating a 28,000-pound behemoth through the streets.

“It’s a real job,” she said. “They come out at the end with marketable skills, something they can put on their résumé.”

The agency has a good safety record, she said. I was about to put that to the test.

The “bus roadeo” course was staged on the Unitrans bus yard on campus. Alvaro Ponce, a Unitrans driver trainer and recent graduate, served as my guide. He joined Unitrans a few years ago, in part for some bragging rights.

“I wanted to learn something that no one else in my family knows how to do,” he said. “Next thing is an airplane.” He’s taking flying lessons.

The obstacle course stations included parallel parking at a curb, backing up between two rows of cones, and angling through an S-curve.

“I got this,” I thought, settling into the driver’s seat. I pulled the lever to close the doors, hit the gas and cranked a right turn. It was a rush spinning the oversized steering wheel, kind of like “Wheel of Fortune,” and feeling the bus rumble under me.

“No!” Ponce said. I realized I hadn’t been listening. Too late, I looked in the rear-view mirror to see two orange cones lying on their sides. One had black tire marks on it. Silent condemnation. They were the first of several cones that would fall in my wake.

Piloting a bus involves a whole different set of calculations than driving the family car, Ponce told me. The operator sits right up at the windshield, more than 30 feet ahead of the bus’s pivot point at the back wheels. It means drivers have to stick their noses up to oncoming lanes and over curbs, basically waiting until the last minute to make turns so that the rear doesn’t cut corners. In the driver’s seat, it feels a bit like hanging over a cliff.

Ponce said math and engineering majors tend to be quicker learners than, say, writing majors during training. Hmm.

I finished the course in eight minutes. Very slow. Ponce later drove the course in a bit more than two minutes.

But hey, the next day, my daughter informed me I had won an award. They even gave me a certificate. It reads: “Unitrans is proud to give the title of Professional Turtle to Tony Bizjak.”