Instructor Larry Thornton helps SBISD bus driver Sylvia Rodgers navigate a hazard in the training simulator.
Larry Thornton, a former teacher, administrator, trustee – and school bus driver – is giving a pep talk to a small group of SBISD drivers.
“I thank you,” said Thornton, a large man whose shaved head and bushy gray moustache give him what could be an intimidating presence, “because you care about my children on your bus."
“If you don’t think you make a difference,” he adds, “you are wrong.” Thornton should know – he drove a regular school bus route, he said, throughout his teaching and administrative career.
The trailer Thornton and the drivers are inside is home to a mobile training simulator, a state-of-the-art computer software system that allows instructors such as Thornton to challenge drivers with any number of scenarios.
Sitting in front of a simulated dashboard with controls that look and function like those found on a school bus, and a three-screen array that features roadways and landscapes, drivers react to hazards as presented by Thornton.
Drivers also talk about how they react to situations, and why, with instant feedback from Thornton, who is passionate about his job and whose admiration and respect for drivers is always front and center.
“Larry was awesome,” said Denise Martin, who’s been driving a school bus for 29 years. “He makes you feel comfortable … he studies everybody and knows how to approach each individual.”
Thornton talks about how kids may have lousy home lives or maybe have had a bad day at school, and how a school bus driver can “break the cycle.”
“Your good words when kids get on or off the bus, going to school or when kids go home, you can make the difference,” he said.
Then he tells SBISD driver Sylvia Rodgers, seated at the controls of the simulator, that he’s about to “throw her under the bus.”
Thornton presents her with a railroad crossing on the simulator, then stops the simulation to talk with the group of drivers about what just happened.
He says that Texas state law requires school buses to stop between 15 and 50 feet of a rail crossing, and that drivers shouldn’t rely on the wide white line that indicates where vehicles should stop.
He demonstrated how looking over the length of the bus’s hood creates a blind spot immediately in front of the vehicle, and how that blind spot is different for every driver but every driver should take the time to know their personal blind spot.
For Thornton and the Region 6 Education Service Center in Huntsville, school bus safety can’t be taken seriously enough. That’s why the ESC invested in the $300,000 mobile simulator – one of only three in the country – and recently upgraded its software to the tune of $26,000.
“That seems like a lot of money, but just one unlawful death suit …” Thornton said, letting drivers fill in the blank. “(The simulator) is an awesome investment and very, very successful.”
SBISD Transportation Director Sherri Lawson loves the training but wishes she could put more drivers through.
“(The simulator) can only handle 15 sessions (while at Spring Branch),” said Lawson. “We have nearly 200 drivers, and driving coaches too.”
She said the drivers who’ve been through the training are excited about what they’ve learned.
“They’ve all gotten certificates and brought them in to show me,” she said. “They’ve learned new techniques and some have already used what they’ve learned.”
Driver Denise Martin said that she thinks all bus drivers should go through the training, regardless of how long they’ve been driving.
“I learned what my mistakes were,” she said. “I had no idea until (Thornton) pointed them out.”
Lawson said the simulator is booked for the next year but Spring Branch was able to have it come back for a couple of weeks in late July, when she can put 30 more drivers through the training.