Debra Hume was extra cautious as she turned the steering wheel of her school bus.
The first-year bus driver for the Marana Unified School District was attempting a “reverse serpentine,” which is weaving through traffic cones backward.
“It was really stressful,” she said. But she had the help of a trainer, who guided her through the process.
Hume was not driving a real school bus Thursday. This was a simulated training facilitated by the Trust, an insurance company formerly known as the Arizona Risk Retention Trust that insures about 250 school districts in Arizona.
The Trust conducts simulated training sessions throughout the year for the school districts it insures. The Marana district is one of them.
“It is crazily popular,” said Shanna Bailey, a loss control consultant for the insurance company.
The purpose of the simulated school bus driver training is to increase safety and reduce financial risks, she said. It is paired with classroom instruction.
The program began in 2008 and the first district received its training in January 2009, she said. Before then, there was about $4 million a year lost in claims related to school transportation in Arizona. That number is now closer to $1 million.
There needed to be more hands-on training for various situations that drivers may not regularly encounter, she said.
The simulator, which features an actual school bus driver’s seat and four interactive screens, has more than 300 scenarios, which include modules for various driving skills, such as the reverse serpentine and defensive driving, and adverse weather conditions.
The console of the simulator is exactly that of a school bus. All the controls, including a radio and air conditioning knobs, are there.
“If you can do it in a real bus, you can do it here,” Bailey said.
It is housed in a climate-controlled trailer connected to a pickup truck. The whole set up cost the Trust about $500,000 and so far, it has proven to be worth it, she said.
“This gives the drivers some additional experience and a variety of different circumstances that they could come upon while driving their buses,” said Alisha Meza, the transportation director of Marana schools.
There is already a rigorous training regimen for Marana’s 125 school bus drivers who collectively drive more than 10,000 miles each day, she said. The simulated training is an added element to the existing classroom instruction, road training and testing.
After her turn at the simulator, Hume said overall, the experience was helpful. She wouldn’t otherwise have trained in doing a reverse serpentine, which might come in handy someday.
“This would be something I would really want to do again,” she said.