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Annual School Bus Road-eo challenges drivers at BOCES

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This might not be the same kind of rodeo George Strait sang about in “Amarillo by Morning” — you can’t quite lasso a bus, for instance — but competition at the 31st annual School Bus Road-eo was stiff nonetheless.

And for good reason.

It was a chance for professional bus drivers to hone their skills and refresh their knowledge in a job where the stakes are high.

“We carry the world’s most precious cargo,” said this year’s chairman, Nicholas J. Astafan. “We want to do it safely.”

Saturday’s event was hosted by the Jefferson-Lewis Association for Pupil Transportation and held at the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services campus in Watertown.

The competition consisted of a written test followed by a quarter-mile obstacle course. This year, the top three overall finishers were Timothy G. Hancock, Carthage Central School District; Merritt M. Makuch, also from Carthage Central; and Christopher D. Brass, Indian River Central School District. They will have the opportunity to compete at the state and possibly the national level.

With judges watching every move, from inside and outside the bus, the competition can be surprisingly nerve-wracking.

Mr. Makuch has gone to the state level three years in a row. He went to the competition two years ago but said he didn’t do as well as he would have liked because he was nervous.

After working his way through the course Saturday, talking through his maneuvers with the judge on board, Mr. Makuch said he felt he had done “probably worse than last year.”

“You’re nervous every time,” he said. “You don’t know how the buses are going to handle or how you’re going to be judged.”

Mr. Makuch attributed part of the difficulty he had to the length of the bus he drove, which was 9 inches longer than the one he drove last year.

To a certain extent, the point of the competition is to force drivers outside of their comfort zones.

“You have to be flexible,” said Barbara J. Grace. “You’re supposed to be able to drive everything in your fleet.”

That is especially important if drivers need to evacuate schools in an emergency.

Participation at the event has declined in recent years, said William J. Wolff, territory manager for Penn Commercial Vehicle Solutions, one of the sponsors.

Drivers compete voluntarily and are not paid.

But it’s obvious those who show up are motivated and take pride in their work.

“I’m amazed at what some of these drivers can do,” Mr. Wolff said. “It’s a huge responsibility anyway driving a school bus.”


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