One Saturday a month, Metrobus-driver wannabes face the orange cones of 5th Street NW.
The driver with the curly hair and the shiny black leather jacket adjusts the rearview mirror of his Chevy Impala, taking a second to check his hair while he’s at it. Releasing the parking brake, he shifts his eyes from puddled roadway to the man on the sidewalk nearby. He massages the oversized, furry steering wheel, gently applies pressure to the gas, and glides forward into Saturday morning traffic on 5th Street NW.
A few minutes later, he’s ready to park. He twists his body around to eye the same space and then cuts the tires hard right. The parallel parking begins. At first, all is well. He slides the Chevy back into the 22-foot-long spot. The first cut appears precise. A shy grin creeps across his long face as the Impala idles.
But the smile doesn’t last long. The Chevy lurches forward and then back, crushing a fluorescent-orange cone behind it. Curly regains composure and trains the Impala forward again, guiding her back for a second attempt. He hits the cone again.
At this, the man on the sidewalk has seen enough. Peering up from under his Metro hat, he lets the Impala driver have it. “How many times are you going to kill that pedestrian?” he demands.
That cone isn’t your average pedestrian. Then again, the man with the Impala isn’t your average driver. If today works out—and so far, it doesn’t look too promising—he’ll soon be on his way to trading in that ’70s beater for his very own Metrobus. If the instructors on hand at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s monthly road test for prospective bus operators give him a pass, he could be turning in those orange cones for real-live pedestrians.
One Saturday a month, the transit authority turns a downtown block of 5th Street into a miniature driving school. With a cadre of bus-driving teachers on hand, 40 would-be drivers do three-point turns, lane changes, and parallel parking in their own cars. Though Director of Metrobus Training Steve Petruccelli says 95 percent of applicants pass, instructors say it’s still a pretty crucial litmus test.
And passing it could well be beyond the guy in the Impala. With each pedestrian he kills, the prospective bus jockey loses 10 points—and if he loses more than 30, the only way he’ll ever see the inside of a bus is to pony up $1.10 like the rest of us. Watching the car make its way down 5th Street, Petruccelli shakes his head. “This is the kind of guy you really have to worry about,” he says, scribbling furiously on his clipboard.
By the time applicants get to turn the ignition on 5th Street, they’ve already aced the IQ and math exams, outpsyched the psych test, and breezed through the interview. The road test comes last. To pass its four components—vehicle inspection, driver skill, turns, and parking—applicants must overcome such challenges as identifying the location of the windshield wipers, controlling the steering wheel, and properly using the turn signal.
If they pull it off, they’re off to an interview, and then Metro’s six-week bus boot camp, where there are plenty more opportunities to get cut. And if they finish that, they’ll become full-fledged bus drivers. Petruccelli says Metro brings 30 drivers into the training program every two weeks.
The first bar they jump over, of course, isn’t very high. Whereas standard-issue Metrobuses measure 40 feet, today’s applicants will test in small two- and four-door cars ranging from 10 to 14 feet in length. The irony is not lost on the bus operators presiding over the test. “They should at least be able to drive their own cars,” says 30-year veteran Clarrisa Cannon.
You’d assume that each applicant would approach this road test with a commanding knowledge of automobiles and a superior instinct for the road. No such luck. As the day wears on, applicants botch some of the more obvious tasks, taking long pauses before identifying the windshield wiper lever or narrowly missing oncoming vehicles as they pull onto 5th Street.
And although Metro officials insist that there is a high pass rate for the road test, the casualties early today prove unusually high. Two out of the first five fail. But the pool soon recovers, and at the end of the day 77 of 81 have made it.
Applicant Tamilla Short seems aware of her chances. As the Impala guy—who, cone carnage notwithstanding, narrowly passes his test—exits the scene, Short eyes the white Ford compact available for use by applicants who don’t have their own vehicles. She begins in the same fashion as her predecessor, gliding out of the parking lane, pausing, and then easing back toward the two sets of orange cones for the crucial parallel parking test.
This time, however, it’s not even close. Even before Short shifts into reverse, instructor Jody Littlefield shakes his head. Short has clearly miscalculated the distance from the curb. Should she miraculously recover, she’ll risk violating the three-minute time limit. In Parallel Parking 101, however, a time violation remains a minor error, costing the road-tester a mere 5 points.
But fate has other demons in store for Short. As she hooks the gleaming Ford into the space, her approach is entirely off. Down goes one cone. Then another. And then another. “You just killed three pedestrians!” shouts instructor Cannon, quietly escorting her away from the street. Three pedestrians and you’re out, explains the instructor. She wishes Short better luck next time.
Even in the booming Internet Age economy, a good old-fashioned bus-driver job remains a highly sought-after position: This morning’s crowd represents a special session for the overflow from a week before. But the applicants shouldn’t order their fingerless driving gloves just yet. According to Petruccelli, those who go on to boot camp will soon face the real challenge: the obstacle course in Lot B of the FedEx Field parking lot. And this time they will be driving buses. Wear a helmet. CP