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David Millhouser
February 2, 2022
76 views

Driving a Bus

Right Turns

I’ve always been cheap, and the opportunity to visit two European cities for $500 was hard to resist. That was round-trip airfare, lodging, ground transportation, and meals. No matter that the cities were Moscow and Leningrad… and it was Winter. What could go wrong? So, back in the 1970s when “detente” with the Soviet Union made it possible, my Dad and I leaped on a Pan Am 707 and headed East.

We got to our hotel… the nearly new Rossiya. For those of you less versed in the language, “nearly new” is Russian for “almost complete”.

We wanted a drink and were told that the nearest available adult beverage was in the historic Metropole Hotel. While no taxis were available, “arrangements could be made”. We wandered outside and were picked up by... a hearse. 

The driver worked for a funeral home and moonlighted by transporting people around in a state-owned hearse. After a drive so long and convoluted that we thought we were in a spy movie… he dropped us at the Metropole. A bit nervous about getting back to our hotel, we asked him to wait… and shaking his head, he nodded across Red Square… pointing to the Rossiya, which was visible only a few blocks away.

This is similar to the Russian hearse we rode in.
This is similar to the Russian hearse we rode in.

Moscow, like some European cities, did not permit left turns, so we’d meandered several kilometers and numerous right turns… to travel a couple of blocks as the crow flies. And that’s how I learned that left turns are different than right.  Each has its charms and perils. Left turns have that nasty oncoming traffic, which may be why Europe dislikes them so much.

Turn to the right and it’s a different kettle of fish. In a bus, drive axles seem lethargic and take a serious shortcut. Rear duals may be lazy, but they’re mean, flattening unwary people or cars that get in their way. If that wasn’t tricky enough... getting a 45’ bus around a tight turn means that the rear end is swinging outside the dual wheels’ track. This multitasking allows a clever coach driver to wreak havoc on both sides at once. 

Be careful making turns in a bus, pedestrians tend to walk right into the side of your bus while staring at their cell phones.
Be careful making turns in a bus, pedestrians tend to walk right into the side of your bus while staring at their cell phones.

In an effort to protect pedestrians, some cities (New York in particular) are being extremely aggressive in enforcing all sorts of traffic laws. It has reached the point where in the event of an accident the coach driver is often presumed guilty. 

At least one was hauled off to jail… for an accident where it was later determined that the victim had ignored traffic signals and wandered into the bus’s path. That may be a bit over the top, but avoiding accidents seems like a good thing for everyone. There are a couple of things that can help, and pointing out stuff you already know... makes me look smart.

Know the bus you’re driving. Different wheelbases and how sharply the steering axle turns, make a difference in how you set up a turn. Does the tag axle steer? If so, your rear bumper may range farther looking for prey. Mixing 40’ and 45’ coaches into a fleet means the first few turns might require a bit of thought.

Take attendance… as you set up the turn, scan the sidewalk for potential victims. The inattentive ones are the easiest. A gaggle of texting teens wearing earbuds is a target-rich environment. Always use your directional signals, this isn’t “Hunger Games”, so play fair.

Modern coaches have remotely adjustable mirrors… use those jewels. In congested areas, aim them to cover the most dangerous areas. You can’t eliminate blind spots, but you can move them to less relevant points. Use BOTH mirrors, don’t forget that the left corner of a 45’ bus swings outside the radius, and can do some serious booty bashing.

When you swing wide, cars and pedestrians sometimes try to cut inside your track (WHAT are they thinking?). I have no idea what to do… just reminding you that it happens. If you misjudge the turn and have to back up, know what’s behind you. Don’t you just HATE those mystery crunches?

Go slow. It gives you more time to spot lurking solid objects and offers the distracted and infirm a sporting chance to scurry out of the way. Take time to enjoy watching them scramble… we old guys are particularly entertaining.

Riding through Moscow we were surprised at how carefully and smoothly our driver negotiated the streets, scrupulously obeying traffic laws. Eventually, we realized that was because he was terrified of the consequences of a traffic stop. How could he explain that the guys in the back of his hearse were... alive?

As a sequel to this column, left turns deserve some respect too. After careful consideration, there seems no demand (or even tolerance) on the part of the industry for that. 

Left Turns

Left turns make me nervous. You may think it’s because I’m a fairly conservative guy, but the real reasons are far more rooted in physics.

Assuming you didn’t memorize the first part, it bears repeating that several sophisticated European cities severely limit, or outright ban, left turns. They feel that they’re either unsafe or disrupt traffic flow.

We red-blooded Americans can’t be bothered with such things.

Negotiating a left turn safely requires some effort, but your insurer would tell you it is worth it.

First, make sure that the crossroad you’re approaching allows them. There are intersections where they’re not permitted, either for traffic reasons or because a city wishes to appear more “European”. 

You’ll want to look for signs and traffic signals that give you a hint. On occasion, they are cleverly concealed AND sometimes have designated time periods when turns are allowed. Who knew there’d be math? Signs can hide in many places... behind trees, next to stoplights, or my personal favorite, arrows painted on the street. 

Once you’ve determined that you are going to “hang a left”, you might want to peek through the windshield to see if anything is coming at you in the opposing lane. I’m kidding because you do that, but sometimes we wait long enough to lose track of oncoming traffic, or someone pulls into the lane from a secret hiding place. 

We’ve got a ton of new electronic safety thingy, but to the best of my knowledge, none of them does diddly to prevent you from turning into the path of a stealth vehicle. 

It is difficult to accurately judge the speed of oncoming traffic, particularly large trucks. They seem to get to you faster than you’d expect. In sports, a tie is acceptable, but in traffic somehow it is accompanied by loud noises and the big guy always makes out best. When in doubt, wait them out.

This is true at rail crossings too, and a more serious situation, because locomotives rarely swerve to avoid you.

Waiting for traffic to pass, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to begin turning the steering wheel to the left. Bad idea. If something nails you from behind, you may be nudged (or rammed) into the path of oncoming traffic. Keep the wheel aimed straight and you only have one, rear-end accident. If you turned that sucker to the left, you may slide into a “twofer”

Another phenomenon associated with left-hand turns is the frequently fatal “second train syndrome”. You’ve seen it on reality videos of rail crossing disasters, but anything trains can do, we can do better. You’re waiting at a traffic light (wheels straight because you studied the last paragraph), and what looks like the last oncoming truck thunders on by. You spin the wheel left, mash the throttle... and get clobbered by a car in the far lane that was hiding behind the truck.

The bright side is that if you’re nailed by an oncoming car while in the middle of a left turn, it will hit the passenger side of the bus. You should be OK.  If, on the other hand, you’re hit by a truck… all bets are off. In practical terms, being struck by either might degrade your passengers’ willingness to tip.

Right-hand turns offer opportunities to stalk pedestrians even while they are on the sidewalk. Due to a longer turning radius, hunting them is more difficult in the left-hand mode. Jaywalkers are frequently difficult-moving targets and are alert to their surroundings.  Keep an eye out for strays with their faces buried in “smart” phones, or older folks who don’t hear or see well. It can be entertaining watching them scramble to avoid being, scrambled.

I once flew to Jamaica, a former British colony. When I got to the rental car, it appeared that someone had put the steering wheel on the wrong side. After ruminating briefly, it occurred to me that Jamaicans not only speak metric, they drive on the wrong side of the road. (it seemed important to get “rumination” into an anecdote about Jamaica).

The first thing you encounter leaving the Montego Bay airport is a “roundabout” … the sophisticated British term for “left-hand demolition derby”.

Getting on was fairly easy, but I did more orbits than John Glenn before managing to exit. Apparently, the British Empire hasn’t entirely forgiven us for the Revolutionary War.

Driving on the left side never got completely comfortable, but one benefit was that it made you think about turns. When you do them correctly, your head swivels like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist.

Going Straight

If there was a competition for “bus slalom” my buddy’s weary old 4106 could have contended for the gold. He’d checked everything… tie rods, bearings, tires, even the steering box, to no avail. That jewel cruised I-95 zig-zagging like a WWII convoy avoiding U-boats. 

Since recent articles taking on the left and right-hand turns didn’t result in any nasty repercussions, it seems safe to take a shot at “driving straight”. It shouldn’t take a ton of skill to navigate a highway, but some factors can make it challenging.

In the case of the meandering GM, after going through everything connecting the steering wheel to the tires multiple times, my pal found a sneaky little gear hiding in a bulkhead that was worn.  Any time your bus seems to have a mind of its own you’ll want to check all the mechanical stuff and tires for wear. 

When it comes to front tires, you should not play favorites, they should each get the same amount of love (and air).

Other technical factors can cause wandering and excessive tire wear. Improperly adjusted toe-in, caster, and camber can all make a difference in how willingly a coach goes where you point it. 

In ye olden days, toe-in was the one you could adjust (you wanted your bus to be slightly pigeon-toed). Some modern buses with independent suspensions allow you to set a caster, which is an angle on the steer axle that makes your tires want to come back to the center. 

If any of these are out of “spec” you’ll get poor tire wear at a minimum and squirrelly handling at worst. Unlike me, a smart person can often look at tire wear patterns and know what’s not right.

Assuming all your mechanicals are up to snuff, there are a variety of other factors you can use as an excuse for weaving. Crosswinds can create problems. It’s fairly obvious that they push on the side of your coach, but how hard they shove varies with the bus. The length of the coach, as well as its height, determine how much “sail area” you have to contend with, but other factors like wheelbase and number of axles are considerations. Wind can be cunning too. 

We once had a Scenicruiser blown off the road by a gust that sneaked in between two hills. That jewel laid on its side like a giant French fry… when we got a closer look, it had been transformed into a crinkle-cut... totaled. 

Coming out of a tunnel can be exciting because wind conditions at the exit are often different than at the entrance. Perhaps because there’s usually a mountain between them.

Lest you think you’re safe in an urban environment, under some conditions tall buildings create their own micro-climate, driving atop a raised highway gives crosswinds an extra shot at you.

You can be passing a truck (or, heaven forbid, vice versa) and when you ease out of its shelter, be blown sideways. In addition, large vehicles all trail at least some turbulence that can misdirect you. 

Shorter coaches make things even more interesting. Many are the same height as their 45’ siblings but have a shorter wheelbase and no tag axle acting like a rudder. I’m not smart enough to know how much, but they certainly behave differently in a gale.

Roads are crowned to encourage rainwater to head towards the shoulders.  Your bus will often follow that same sideways path unless you give it direction.  This is one reason why so many nighttime accidents involve vehicles straying off the highway at a shallow angle, while the driver snoozes. 

The good news is that there are a couple of things you can do that will keep you on the “straight and narrow”.

First, slowing down negates virtually all these spoilers. Crosswinds don’t move you as far, and turbulence is lessened when you’re driving slower. 

Second, paying attention gives you a chance to anticipate a truck’s wake or a wind gust sneaking between buildings or hills. Staying wide awake prevents the road’s crown from taking you down.

Third, have a feel for the coach you’re driving. How does it react to road conditions? Is it different than other buses you’ve driven? 

My pal Oakie used to check alignment by driving a GM - -4104 slowly down a straight stretch of road. He would leap out of the driver’s seat, run to the back of the bus touch the lavatory door, and scurry back behind the wheel. If the coach hadn’t left the road, alignment was adequate. Not QUITE as scary as it sounds since a 4104 was only 35’. 

This brings us to the most significant factor in safe bus navigation. Never allow a loose Bus Nut behind the wheel.

Changing Lanes

“The new driver is weaving” the passenger whispered in my pal’s ear. Walter had just finished a 24-hour shift and was snoozing in the front seat of a 4104 while the “fresh” driver took command.

Fresh being a relative term, the “relief” guy had twelve driving hours under his belt in another bus before staggering onto Walter’s and was changing lanes indiscriminately. Raising an eyelid, Walter mumbled, “Shut up kid, he’s just practicing his passing”, and resumed his nap.

Let’s begin at the beginning. In 1911, Edward N. Hines was following a leaky milk tanker in Michigan when he noticed that it was leaving a white line in the middle of the road. He cleverly figured that painting the line would be more permanent and might serve to prevent collisions. Mr. Hines invented the lane.

Since changing lanes is one of the riskier aspects of driving, it seems worth exploring. There are two kinds of lane changes… accidental, and deliberate. 

Several things may initiate inadvertent lane changes. Blown tires, hydroplaning, wind gusts, falling into a coma, or just not paying attention.  Hydroplaning is a personal favorite. At speed, it can cause a steroidal lane change that sweeps the whole highway.

New technologies like tire monitoring systems and lane departure warning systems have helped some. The latest lane departure systems are neat, when you stray, the driver’s seat vibrates, so only the driver is awakened, as compared to the old system where the bus departs the road, the entire bus shakes and all passengers wake up too. 

In ye olden days, my boss would sit behind us with a cattle prod, and if we wandered, would nuke our bums. Some passengers found our screams unnerving. (Kidding).

Of course, there is the “hybrid” change, where you drift into the other lane, realize you’re halfway there without having crushed anything, and keep going maintaining the illusion you meant to change lanes. Some other times we can discuss the subtle differences between hybrid lane changes and weaving.

Since there’s an element of danger involved each time, we cross Mr. Hines lines, avoiding changes where possible is good practice.  There are, however, several good reasons to deliberately change lanes… passing, setting up a turn, avoiding road debris, or aiming for the correct toll booth.  Whether purposeful or accidental, a number of cosmic truths are involved.

First, since two objects can’t occupy the same spot, don’t slide into a space without checking for other vehicles. You knew that. It’s worthwhile to step it up a notch and constantly keep score of all the traffic around you. If a car you’re tracking disappears, either it was beamed up by a UFO, OR it’s in your blind spot. Wishing the UFO got it… doesn’t make it so.

Adjusting mirrors correctly can reduce those pesky visual Black Holes, and since modern buses have remote-controlled mirrors, you can aim them appropriately for the type of driving you’re doing.

If you’re consistently keeping track of traffic and one of those inadvertent changes rears its ugly head, in the form of inattention, a road hazard, or a sneaky toll booth, you may be able to avoid an accident, or at least know what you squished.

Signaling is a complex issue. Irrelevant in the event of accidental lane changes, it represents a complex moral dilemma in the case of intentional ones. In New England, where I live, the common wisdom is to never let them know what you’re going to do, so they can’t snarf your space. In civilized regions, like the Midwest, signaling is the gallant thing to do. Each area has its own etiquette (or neurosis). 

While I personally recommend that you consistently signal (or at least subtly hint) lane changes, be aware of the local customs.  Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

Slow is better than fast. ENJOY your lane changes. By easing into another lane, you offer stealth vehicles lurking in blind spots the opportunity to greet you with horn blasts (or, more likely, an upturned finger).

Plan ahead for lane changes, targeting an open spot in the traffic stream, as opposed to creating one by ramming, is proper etiquette.

It never hurts to know how long your coach is. A 35’ bus fits into a smaller space than a 45’ bus. When slipping into a gap in another lane, it is VERY important to know where your rear end is and if you have a toad, its length must be taken into consideration too. Good advice any time.

I learned to drive by sliding into the driver’s seat of a moving bus. The only way I could center it in the lane was to align the inspection sticker in the windshield corner with the stripes in the highway as they whizzed by.   With this navigational technique, lane changes were only possible where there were no stripes. 

This is NOT a good way to go. You can end up in some strange places, particularly if you’re following a leaky milk tanker.

Article written by David Millhouser

Dave Millhouser started driving buses cross-country for a non-profit Christian organization called “Young Life” as a summer job in 1965. They carried high school kids from the East Coast to ranches in Colorado in a fleet that consisted of three 1947 Brills, a 1947 Aerocoach, and a 1937 Brill. Their fleet grew to 23 buses and traveled all 48 contiguous states and much of Canada.

When Young Life dropped their bus program, Dave ended up selling parts for Hausman Bus Sales. In 1978 Dave was hired by Eagle International to sell motorcoaches and spent the next 30 years doing that… 13 years with Eagle, as well as stints with MCI, Setra, and Van Hool. His first sale was an Eagle shell for a motorhome, and his career ended selling double-decker Van Hools.

Dave had a side career in underwater photography/writing, and Bus and Motorcoach News asked him to do a regular column in 2006. Millhouser.net is an effort to make those columns available to bus people.

If you find value in them, feel free to use them at no charge. Dave would ask that you consider a donation to the AACA Museum aacamuseum.org in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They recently merged with the Museum of Bus Transportation, and maintain a fleet of 40 historic coaches, lots of bus memorabilia, and hundreds of antique automobiles.

If you are anywhere near Hershey… Dave says, “You will love it.”

In May of 2015, the Editor of Bus & Motorcoach News called Dave a Bad Example for Motorcoach Drivers… his proudest accomplishment to date. Read the columns and you’ll see why.

Click here to reach Dave by email: davemillhouser@icloud.com
Click here to visit his website: https://www.millhouser.net/

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