Bus drivers slide into shape for new school year

It looked like something a stunt crew would set up for a Hollywood film.

The car came zooming down the straightaway, attempted to turn around a sharp corner, and instead did a 360-degree spin before coming to a quick halt.

It was only once the four-door sedan stopped spinning you noticed something a little odd about it.

Instead of two tires on the back end, the car is raised up on two wheels jutting out from the side. Resembling oversized shopping cart wheels, they cause the back end of the car to start sliding with every tap of the breaks and every turn of the steering wheel.

No stunt car drivers were behind the wheel, but those who were driving needed skills just as important.

On a sunny August afternoon every Hood River County School District bus driver was getting practice at a skill which could come in handy four or five months from now.

“It’s alright as long as you keep focused,” said rookie bus driver Paul Askins of being behind the wheel of the car. “But as soon as you don’t, just like that you can go out of control.”

The bus drivers should know; they are tasked driving vehicles over 20 feet long crammed with children through a variety of weather conditions.

Last winter, during one of the worst ice storms in recent memory, one bus slid off the road on Highway 35 pinning the driver as she attempted to repair a broken chain. Toward the end of the storm drivers dropped kids off at school, only to have to return shortly thereafter to pick them up and get them home after a snowstorm rolled in.

While it may not quite match up with the experience of driving a massive bus crammed with children, Wednesday’s practice session gave the drivers, particularly those who had never dealt with sliding on ice before, what the experience was like.

District Transportation Supervisor Cindy Simms said that the school district has no buses set up to do skid training, and that while the Bend-La Pine School District has a large truck it uses for the training, it was not available on the day Hood River County had scheduled.

Molly Barber, a driver with five years’ experience, said she was looking forward to the practice.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve slid or where I’ve gotten out of control,” she said.

As a special education driver, she goes all over the county, from Cascade Locks to Parkdale, and knows she could face a range of weather on during the school year — or during a single day.

Some drivers struggled early on the tight course in the front parking lot at Wy’east Middle School, with tires squealing in anguish as the car slid through 90, 180 or 360 degree spins.

Some clipped cones that were set up around the course. But that was the whole point of having the training session now, instead of in the middle of winter.

Others, like Askins, took to the sliding car like a fish to water and brought the car smoothly to halt after each skid. He credited his experience driving for Dominos in the middle of the winter for his good skid driving skills.

The rookie driver is already predicting they will be needed.

“Since this is my first year,” he laughed. “You know it will be a hard winter.”

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