Reporter Sam Van Schie gets pointers from BC Transit’s Rob Brown.

Nelson Star reporter Sam Van Schie behind the wheel of a city bus

I’ve always been one to thank the bus driver when I get off at my stop.

I’ve always been one to thank the bus driver when I get off at my stop. But after being given an opportunity to drive a bus myself, I’ve gained a new appreciation for these men and women who have learned to safely navigate busy city streets as people chatter away behind them.

BC Transit invited local politicians and media to try driving a full-size Nova bus and the smaller Vicinity through some obstacles set up in an empty parking lot last week. It was meant as a demonstration of how much easier the Vicinity is to handle, though I found both difficult to drive. The takeaway lesson for me was that bus drivers have tough jobs.

The course we drove through was set up like a mini bus roadeo (yes, a bus roadeo — that’s a real thing). We had to get one of the rear tires through a line of tennis balls, then make a series of tight turns around pylons and reverse into a parking stall, before accelerating through a diminishing clearance and trying to stop within six inches of a pylon. All this while judges on the ground marked our performance, deducting points each time we hit a cone or had to shift into reverse to realign the bus.

Three of us attempted the course: myself, Nelson mayor John Dooley, and Castlegar mayor Lawrence Chernoff. Fortunately, we weren’t alone behind the wheel. Standing by our side and giving us pointers along the way was BC Transit safety and training officer Rob Brown, who happens to be a seven time national champion in bus roadeo.

Brown showed us how to work the pedal-controlled turn signals and punch buttons on the dash to get the bus into gear. As we drove he let us know what mirrors to look in to see the side of the tires and when to start cranking the wheel to make sure the back end of the bus would clear the obstacle.

Even with considerable guidance it was a challenging task. Driving the Nova, I managed to get a pylon jammed in the rear wheel well and drag it a few metres without noticing and none of us were able to get through the final cones without knocking two or three down. I didn’t fair much better in the Vicinity.

Each trip through the course only took about six minutes, but boy was I glad when I pulled up to that final pylon and pulled the lever for the parking break. The judges told me I didn’t do too bad. On the final score sheet I was just half a point behind Dooley and 35 points better than Chernoff.

Still, I don’t foresee a career change in my future. When it comes to transit buses, my proper place is definitely as a gracious passenger.

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