Driving a school minibus is a huge responsibility. Gerald Haigh test drives a range of available training courses
Ninety per cent of road accidents are caused by human error, so it surely follows that the best way to keep a precious minibus-load of children out of harm's way is to train the driver. Evidence supports the value of driver training generally - a Transport and Road Laboratory report found that certificated Advanced drivers have between 50 per cent and 75 per cent fewer accidents than others. Drive and Survive, who do lots of group training for big firms, say that accident rates are invariably cut in these companies by around 60 per cent, after their training programme.
John Ball, who trains school minibus drivers for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) says that driving a loaded minibus is not at all like driving a car and that untrained drivers "tend to drive the minibus with a car driver's brain - not regulating their speed to take into account the load and the limits of the brakes, for example".
Two different days of training and two tests are readily available, in some cases free as part of the package with a new vehicle. All were valuable, enjoyable, professionally conducted and capable of reassuring teachers and their management that they could be trusted, in the words of one of my trainers, "to take my own grandchildren out for the day in a minibus".
Most UK driver education has its roots in the training given to police drivers. In 1935, appalled by the accident rate among their own drivers, senior police officers introduced a tight system of training. By 1954, they had reduced the accident rate by a staggering 89 per cent and to this day, driving manuals and courses usually take much of their content from police practice.
DRIVE AND SURVIVE
Drive and Survive's one-day course comes free for two people when you buy a new minibus from the FordBarclaycard Minibus Programme. It usually costs Pounds 225, with up to three people accommodated within this price. My trainer, Rick Wood, began with a meaty theory session. He had some enlivening anecdotes including the one about the driver stopped by traffic police who, apparently unable to move his neck, was using a hand mirror to look left and right at junctions. "So remember when you see a car waiting to pull out that it might be him."
Drive and Survive's philosophy is "training not testing". In teacher jargon, it is developmental: Rick Wood drives, you drive, and together you work on correcting problems and improving the things you already do well. We drove around the streets and main roads of Coventry and into the surrounding countryside, with an excursion on to the M6.
He commented all the time, jovially knocking items from the menu of a notional free meal as I went. "Too close to that car at the lights: there go your after-dinner mints."
I really enjoyed his course. This organisation's training is very pragmatic and just occasionally the advice conflicted with that of other providers: while Rick Wood thought I used the handbrake too much, my RoSPA trainer thought I did not use it enough. This is a detail, though, and the important thing is to understand the issues.
There is a great deal of emphasis on defensive driving. Particularly helpful, especially with a minibus full of children in mind, were the instructor's constant reminders to keep space either ahead, behind or to the side. Thus, on the motorway: "See if you can avoid being three abreast here. We really don't want to be between two articulated lorries."
The course included some low-speed maneouvring on the local supermarket car park, where, in only 10 minutes, Rick Wood showed me that I could reverse the minibus into a parking space without raising my pulse rate. At the end he gave me a check sheet with 52 separate marks in the range one (high risk) to six (low risk). I had two sixes - use of indicators on dual carriageways and motorways - 37 fives, some fours and just one miserable three ("positioning prior to hazards in urban conditions").
Rospa's one-day course costs Pounds 250 for up to three people. Depending on where you are, there might be a maximum supplement of Pounds 75 to cover the trainer's travelling expenses. If you buy a new Citroen minibus you get this training free. With a new LDV minibus you have a short version of it.
RoSPA's course is very directly aimed at the school minibus driver. The theory section, for example, places lots of emphasis on the school driver's legal and safety responsibilities. John Ball, of RoSPA's driver services, gave me half a day of theory, enlivened by jolly cartoon, overhead projections and some illuminating video. One video reconstruction showed how a well-intentioned but misinterpreted flash of headlamps resulted directly in the death of a child cyclist. At that moment I decided never to flash "come on" again.
In the afternoon there was a long shared drive around Birmingham, on every kind of road including motorway. Again the emphasis was on planned driving - information (in and out), position, speed, gear, accelerate. John approved of my driving. He did want me to "make more progress" on the open road. Rick Moore had said the same thing, asking me to "develop my flow".
At one point John Ball asked me to do a running commentary on my driving. This device worries some people and has to be applied with discretion. It has a remarkably focusing and self-analytical effect, however. I did get caught out when John asked me what was the speed limit for minibuses on the road we were travelling, and I was really not sure. Questions of this kind are part of the stock in trade of good driving instructors and have a salutary effect on the over-confident.
The trainee has a checksheet at the end, not so detailed as Drive and Survive's, but clearly showing needed improvements.
RoSPA NATIONAL MINIBUS TEST
This Pounds 47 retest after three years is available separately and I took it next morning. It lasts well over an hour and covers every conceivable kind of road. It is not a test of advanced driving - RoSPA does have its own additional system of advanced tests - but to be sure of passing a driver would need to have read RoSPA's book Essential Minibus Driving and methodically practised what it advises, or taken the RoSPA course, or both.
The test is humanely administered and RoSPA's chief examiner, Bob Smalley, was careful to put me at my ease. The only moment of anxiety I had was when he took me into a suburban cul-de-sac to demonstrate reversing and turning round. There were three youngsters in the street playing on bikes and I was reluctant to reverse without knowing where they were. Bob Smalley saw this and jumped out to watch me back, which, of course, is what I should have asked him to do. I did pass, however. The combined RoSPA experience of course and test was excellent in every way - professional, friendly and very closely targeted on the needs of a school minibus driver.
INSTITUTE OF ADVANCED MOTORISTS
At Pounds 39 the Institute of Advanced Motorists' driving test includes Pounds 12 (refunded if you fail) as the first year's membership subscription. While Drive and Survive offers "training not testing", the IAM offers the opposite - an advanced driving test, but without training, though the organisation has a network of self-help training groups around the country.
The institute was started in 1956 with the aim of reducing road accidents by spreading the influence of the police approach and providing an advanced test for drivers who wanted it. In recent years it has been extended to minibuses.
My examiner was Trevor Poxon, the institute's assistant chief examiner. Again, his approach was friendly and very professional. He told me clearly what was expected and we set out on a long 90-minute drive around Coventry and Warwickshire. He rarely spoke except to give directions, and I concentrated hard on my vehicle control. I did try this time to put my foot down a bit when the road opened up.
I did a commentary for a few minutes - this is now voluntary in the IAM test, though it used to be mandatory. I was conscious all the time of the difficulties of keeping to the basics of correct position, correct speed and correct gear, while looking well ahead to read all the possibilities in advance and being smooth and fluent enough to keep the notional passengers happy. I really did find this test challenging, because I knew I was being judged to a high standard by an advanced police driver.
As we parked I just flopped and gave a big sigh. But I had not finished, because Trevor Poxon then gave me an oral test on some aspects of the law and the Highway Code as they apply to minibuses.
Trevor had just two criticisms: that I had taken a particular bend in fourth gear where third would have been appropriate, and that again, despite my effort to keep moving on the open road, I "lost flow on odd occasions".
At the end, though, I was delighted to find that I had passed.
Licensing arrangements for minibus drivers change on January 1 1997. The detail is outlined in the Minibus Fact Sheet which comes free from the DVLA) but the essential points are these.
If you already have a car licence and you are over 21 you will still be able to drive a minibus for up to 16 passengers without taking a test. If you pass your car test after January 1 1997 it will not cover you for a minibus with more than eight passenger seats unless you also pass a Passenger Carrying Vehicle test.
TWO NOTES OF CONCERN
I was astonished to discover that many schools which buy a new minibus are slow to take up associated free driver training. If this is due to difficulty in releasing staff then perhaps heads and governors should look at priorities. I was equally surprised to learn that some teachers do not want to drive the school minibus, but feel pressured into doing so. They confide this to the trainers but do not feel able to make the point in school, sometimes because of worries about job security. Again, this is a lesson for heads and governors.
THE MINIBUS I USED
For all of my training and testing sessions I used a four-month-old Ford Transit 15-seater minibus lent by Ford. It had full lap and diagonal seatbelts and high-back safety seats and was easy to drive, safe and very comfortable. My vehicle had the 76ps diesel engine - the least powerful option. However, it pulled lustily in low gears and was quite fast enough for its purpose. The power steering was a godsend when I was being tested on tight reversing manoeuvres, as were the big mirrors with additional blindspot lenses. The very pleasant gear change and light clutch invited you to use them, and made it so much easier always to be in the right gear. The brakes, too, were positive and progressive which helped when it came to making smooth, passenger-friendly stops at traffic lights.
The vehicle costs Pounds 23,295+VAT Through FordBarclaycard members' programme discounts of up to Pounds 6,000 can be achieved by persuading parents to donate their Barclaycard points. Details: CSS Promotions, 12 Great Newport Street, London WC2 7JA . Tel: 0171 240 5347 Fax: 0171 414 0306
Drive and Survive
The Maltings, Bridge Street, Hitchin, Hertfordshire SG5 2DE. Tel :01462 441844 Fax: 01462 442144 Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA)
Edgbaston Park, 353 Bristol Road, Birmingham B5 7ST Tel: 0121 248 2000 Fax: 0121 248 2001 Institute of Advanced Motorists
IAM House, 359-365 Chiswick High Road, London W4 4HA Tel: 0181 994 4403. Fax: 0181 994 9249 Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, Swansea SA99 1BN.
Tel: 01792 772151 Publications
Essential Minibus Driving by Tony Dring and Mike Collins. Pounds 2.95 from RoSPA. A must for all the training mentioned Roadcraft (Police Drivers' Manual) HMSO Pounds 10.95 Interesting and essential for the IAM test.