By Derek Liebig
A trio of local bus drivers traveled to Saratoga Springs last month to test their skills, and when it was all over, one of Whitehall’s own emerged with a second place finish.
Leda Palmer, who has been a bus driver in the Whitehall School District for 11 years, placed second in the New York Association for Pupil Transportation regional bus drivers’ Rodeo, held at the Maple Avenue Middle School in Saratoga Springs.
Palmer was one of three drivers from the district to participate in the event, which tests driving knowledge and ability. Mary Ellen Ellis and Mike Lee also partook in the event, as did Palmer’s son who works in the Hudson Falls School District.
The event marked the eighth occasion Palmer has competed in the event and the first time she placed, walking away with a plaque and an invitation to the state-wide event later this summer.
“There was a little bit of luck involved,” a humble Palmer said. “It was a good experience and a lot of fun.”
The rodeo, which was held May 21, pitted drivers from eight different school districts in two different divisions: small and large bus.
The event consisted of a number of events that evaluated a driver’s ability to navigate a bus through different obstacles.
Ellis, who has been a bus driver for the past three years and participated in the event for the first time, said drivers were required to stop and pick up a “student,” (the students were DOT inspectors and head bus drivers) who rode along and evaluated the drivers performance as they made different maneuvers in the bus, kind of like taking the test for your driver’s license.
She said drivers had to make K-turns (very similar to three-point turns), navigate a row of cones, successfully pass through a gate of tennis balls without hitting them, properly pass over railroad tracks, correctly judge stopping distance and even parallel park.
“The parking can be difficult, we don’t have to do much of it in our everyday driving,” said Ellis.
“We usually find an area large enough to turn around in,” joked Palmer.
Besides completing various driving feats, participants also have to take a number of written tests.
Drivers are evaluated on a point scale and have the potential to earn a maximum of 325 points. Palmer scored 280 and Ellis earned 237. The winner earned 301.
Besides providing drivers with a little fun and the chance to mingle with counterparts, the event is also a valuable learning tool.
Bus drivers have the chance to improve their skills and learn what to do in different situations. For instance, Saturday’s event had a bus filled with smoke that simulated a fire and last year’s event featured a mock rollover.
“It’s a good learning experience and confidence builder,” Palmer said.
Palmer will compete at the state event on July 9. Ellis said she plans on being there to root her co-worker on.
“We’re going to go for first place next year.”