Laurel County Schools' bus driver training is virtually amazing
Kentucky School Advocate
By Matt McCarty
It was a beautiful, late-September morning in Kentucky, but the road I was navigating in Laurel County was treacherous, to say the least. The snow was falling hard and the dense fog made visibility almost impossible.
Considering I had never driven a school bus before, I was doing OK. It helped that I was in the Laurel County Schools’ bus simulator and not driving an actual school bus.
“We can pick all the things we want to happen (in the simulator),” said Tim Gabbard (above), the lead trainer and assistant director for Laurel County Schools’ transportation department. “We can pick the traffic being anywhere from minimal to very heavy. We can have it rain, snow; we can have it foggy, cloudy; we can even pick how fast we want the wind to blow. There’s many scenarios.”
Laurel County Schools purchased the simulator last December for $137,000. Bob Myers, the district’s transportation director, said Laurel is the first school district in the nation to solely own a simulator.
“It’s just endless the things we can do with this,” Gabbard said. “Training through repetition is a very valuable tool. I can’t very well put someone in a school bus and prepare them for (having a tire blow out). In the virtual world, I can. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But it gives (the driver) … a basic working knowledge.”
New drivers getting a head start
Laurel County is using the simulator to train new drivers before they have their license to drive a bus. The district will also use it with veteran drivers who may want to practice certain situations.
“What we’ve seen is once they do get behind the wheel of a real bus, they’re doing much better. It’s shortening our training time,” Myers said.
Matthew Langdon, a first-year driver with the district, used the simulator during his training and said it was “extremely beneficial.”
“It made the transition into an actual bus much more smooth and I believe that helped me pass my driving test the first time and it prepared me for my job as a bus driver,” he said.
Langdon said he did approximately 10 sessions in the simulator with each session ranging from 30 minutes to an hour. He said he did “quite a bit of rain and wet road driving as well as cold and snow” in the simulator.
Will other districts follow?
Myers, who was an air traffic controller in the Navy, is in his third year at Laurel County. He said the use of simulators in the Navy is what spurred him to look at school district use.
He noted that three districts in east Texas share the use of a simulator and he’s surprised no other districts own one, but “at the same time, knowing public school economics, it’s a good-size investment.”
John Wyatt, the training director for the state education department’s pupil transportation unit, said he doesn’t think many other districts will purchase a simulator because of the cost.
“I don’t know if it will be cost effective,” he said. “With budgets tight the way they are, that’s why I just don’t see it spreading.
“That being said, if they see some kind of remarkable results …”
Myers said Laurel County has seen a lot of interest from other districts in its simulator “and I think they’re kind of waiting on us to see what we’re going to do with it.”
Measuring the cost
The district doesn’t have any data yet to show how much the simulator has saved in fuel costs and minor wear and tear to an actual bus by having drivers do a portion of their training in the simulator instead of an actual bus. School board member Joe Schenkenfelder said he thinks it is worth the money.
“I think we need to invest in our bus drivers,” he said. “(The simulator) was another expense that we had talked about and we said, ‘Hey, this is going to be a great training tool.’”
Schenkenfelder said when he drove in the simulator it was a “cool experience.” The former state trooper said he’s spent a lot of time on the road, but the feeling of driving a bus – even on a simulator – was completely different.
“I can tell you when I was driving I had a bead of sweat on my forehead. It was a real feeling and I said, ‘Wow, this thing is really doing the tricks on my body,’” he said. “Just to see and feel, when you get in these simulators, if they’re the real deal you will take on a physiological kind of change in your body. Is it challenging? Does it cause you to be more alert or concerned? And I was doing all those things.”
Beyond the potential savings in fuel, Gabbard said if a driver experiences something on the simulator that helps avoid an accident in real life, then it will be worth the investment.
“And I am certain in sitting here saying it’s paid for itself many times already. But it’s something we’ll never know,” he said.
During my time behind the wheel of the simulator, I was doing my best to focus on my snowy surroundings while talking to Gabbard and Myers. I can only imagine what my concentration level would’ve been with 84 students talking behind me.
After about 10 minutes of watching my speed and trying not to get too close to the car in front of me, I decided to give it a little more gas. Before I realized it, I was approaching a curve. I hit the brakes but the bus slid into the other lane and hit a car.
Luckily it was only a simulation. Gabbard said it would be rare for a bus to be out in real life in those conditions, but “we do train and prepare for such an event.”