Kathleen “Lolly” Smith learned to drive stick shift the hard way: in a school bus.
When she started driving for Akron Public Schools in 1974, friends helped her get a chauffeur’s license, the previous requirement for transporting dozens of school children. “You drove around the block,” she said of the test. “They didn’t even make sure you cross railroad tracks correctly.”
Much has changed in 40 years.
For the most part, stick shift is out. Distracted driving is up. And extensive training is in.
Since 2000, Lolly — as she prefers to be called — has trained more than 170 bus drivers in the Akron area. She’s the featured driver in a video that countless more trainees across the state watch before taking a test to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) through the State Highway Patrol.
Lolly trains drivers for Akron Public Schools and has worked with Lippman and Old Trail, among other schools, training the folks who train and supervise other bus drivers.
When her students pass the CDL test, she gives them another written exam, another 30-minute pre-trip inspection certification and another hourlong driving test before the Ohio Department of Education will allow them to be alone behind the wheel of a bus filled with children.
The whole process can take three to four months, Lolly said.
In six-year increments, each Ohio school bus driver will be recertified and schooled on new procedures. It’s all part of what makes riding a bus statistically the safest way for students to get to school and why Ohio excels, Lolly said.
If there’s an MVP in the world of school transportation safety, Lolly would be the LeBron James of bus driving.
She has won a regional bus driving competition — hosted by the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation — more times than Kobe Bryant has led the Lakers to the NBA Finals. She has participated in a competition, called the Ohio State ROAD-E-O, for 17 years, advancing to the state finals nine times.
Last year, she was given the ROAD-E-O’s top honor of “Driver of the Year” for her performance in the regional competition. Last week, she added to her safe-driving accolades after receiving the Fred Anness Award for On-Bus Instructor of the Year, awarded by the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation for the first time.
The award illustrates outstanding leadership and professional conduct in the school transportation field. It also recognizes on-bus instructors who have contributed to the advancement of pupil transportation as a profession.
Lolly walked two trainees through a pre-trip inspection Wednesday, pointing out the odds and ends, aboard and below, an Akron school bus. Each student is required to perform the extensive pre-trip inspection without the assistance of a cheat sheet, in less than a half hour, to pass the test.
Her experience shows in her tutelage, and the trainees benefit from her wisdom.
Behind the wheel
Sometimes when Lolly is driving in her personal car, she wishes she was in her bus, perched up high with an advantageous view and vanity-sized mirrors spread out before her.
From up high, Lolly and other bus drivers often see more than they would like. A fish-eye mirror catches a blind spot below the windshield where students cross in front of the bus. A 3-foot-wide rearview mirror catches unruly students behind her.
“It’s challenging,” Lolly said of distracted drivers who text or talk on cellphones, and some 50 students who play musical chairs in 24-double seats or stand up to throw trash out a window.
She can recall four distinct intersections in the past 40 years where drivers ran red lights or stop signs, or careened along icy roads and crashed into her bus.
The kids usually don’t notice when a car taps a 17-ton bus, she said. But she’s always surprised by the driver’s incredulous excuse: “One of the most common comments is, ‘We didn’t see you!’ ” she said. “You would think as huge as a bus is ...”
Twice, she even has been hit by children on bicycles.
In no case has she been at fault.
“It takes a special person to be a bus driver,” she said.
If it’s not the grueling training, it’s the prospect of distracted drivers and unruly kids that made one recent trainee question what he was getting into. That’s why Lolly jokingly calls her trainees “these poor folks.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.