Note: This is the second post about Miller. To read the initial post, click here.
Mark Miller, a substitute bus driver for the Bellingham School District, is one of the safest school bus drivers in U.S. and Canada, according to the National School Transportation Association.
Miller, who has only been driving buses for a little over a year, took home the top award for the largest-bus-group at the 40th annual School Bus Driver International Safety Competition in St. Louis on Sunday, July 25.
“I was absolutely on Cloud 9,” he said, adding that he didn’t even hear his name announced because everyone was cheering so loudly. “I was so excited to be able to represent Washington well, represent Belingham, and get the title, the highest available to school bus drivers.”
Miller is the first to admit his short, whirlwind trip to the top is an odd story. Miller, who is an Allegient Airlines captain, was looking for something to fill his free time last spring and thought working part-time driving a “big yellow bus” could be fun.
During his certification training in May 2009, Miller was recruited to be on the competitive bus driving team.
“I thought I was just signing up for bringing kids to and from school,” the 30-year-old said. “I had no idea there was competitive bus driving.”
A couple weeks after getting his certification, he competed in his first regional “roadeo.” Not only did he earn the highest rookie score, he had the highest score overall, stunning everyone, including himself. After that, he “was hooked,” continuing on to win the state competition in 2009 and the regional, state and international competitions in 2010.
“I love driving school buses. I’m completely hooked,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest discoveries of my 20s.”
The international competition, which dates back to 1971, allows top drivers from each state and Canadian province to compete in one of three divisions: transit-style buses, which tend to be the largest and feature flat fronts; conventional-style buses, which feature the engine in the nose of the bus; and small buses. Miller competed in the transit class.
Regardless of the class, competitors face three types of tests during the two-day competition: a written test about rules and laws, a pre-trip inspection, and a driving test.
The driving portion is the biggest part of the competition, with drivers having to demonstrate 10 different “maximum performance maneuvers that are barely possible even if you do them correctly,” Miller said.
For example, drivers have to parallel park a 40-foot transit bus into a 46-foot opening, on the first try, with the front and back tires ending within three inches of the curb. If the curb or barricade is hit, no points are awarded.
“He is the most technically perfect driver I have instructed,” wrote district driver trainer Rae Anne Thon in an email. “But more important than that, he really enjoys driving kids to and from school.”
Miller did get thrown for a loop when he saw the bus he was expected to drive — it was a style he’d never driven in, with a completely different turning radius, narrower wheel base and longer rear-end than any of the Bellingham School District buses.
“It was like controlling a happy dog because the back end of the bus moved back and forth,” he said. “It was like controlling a dog wagging its tail through fragile objects.”
Even though drivers are only competing for bragging rights, and a bright yellow jacket, Miller sees the competitions as good continuing education for difficult situations drivers face.
“When you drive down a small residential road, dropping elementary kids at their houses, and you have a delivery truck on one side of the road, a car on the other side of the road, and an opening that’s a bus width plus 2 inches… it prepares us for that.”
And don’t expect Miller to take his title now and disappear; he’s looking forward to defending his title for many years to come.
“I foresee driving school buses for the next 50 years,” he said. “I just started my retirement job 30 years early.”