Training the Best Bus Operators

The safest big-city bus operators in the United States, as determined in a 2009 federal study, perform their duties behind the steering wheels of MTA buses. How did they become the best?

Through hard work, dedication and the professionalism demonstrated by the instructors of the Bus Operator Training Center in the Bronx, whose efforts are aided by one of the most advanced driving simulators available today.

Photo of Bus Operator

Year in and year out, an average of 1,000 bus operator trainees move through a six-week program that teaches candidates the skills needed to safely operate a bus in New York City traffic, interact with customers and even perform CPR, should an emergency arise. The program is demanding, skill-oriented and thorough. Only about 70 percent of the trainees complete the course.

There are two types of trainees, one who has never driven anything larger than a car and others who have had previous experience driving large vehicles. In either case, they all quickly learn that driving a bus in New York City is a highly specialized task.

Learning how to operate a bus is a studied mix of classroom, simulator and behind-the-wheel instruction all with a single goal: to mold the safest bus operator possible. The simulator is a major component of the process, with its 360-degree view offering the experience of driving a bus without really driving a bus. At first, even the manufacturer didn't have a real understanding of how tough a driving environment New York City can be.

"We kept going back to the manufacturer and asking that the simulation be made more aggressive, and they told us that what they had given us was an accurate representation of how traffic behaves," said Stephen Vidal, Chief Training and Safety Officer for the Department of Buses.

"Eventually, we got them to come to New York and we put them in a bus. It didn't take them long to see how New York City traffic differs from anywhere else in the world."

Aside from watching out for the traffic in front of them, bus operator trainees watch out for vehicles on either side, weave through elevated train pillars, and try to make a right turn without running the rear tires over the curb—all especially tricky maneuvers when you consider that the rear bumper of your vehicles is about 37 feet behind the operator's seat.