By Konstantine Fekos
The phrase “safety first” may sound cliché to some, but one Crawford County school bus driver in particular takes it to heart.
As one of six winners of the 2012 Pennsylvania School Bus Driver Safety Competition, John Choffel Jr. goes beyond the call of duty, placing a daily student shipment in good hands on his regular route at Meadville Area Senior High School.
“We try to use the competition as an incentive to better our everyday driving skills,” he said. “It got in my blood.”
Meeting other dedicated drivers from around the state once a year also serves to inspire Choffel to be his best as he gets plenty of practice on his usual 3 to 4:15 p.m. route, driving Girardat Transportation’s bus number 46.
“Bus drivers are generally good people and I’ve enjoyed meeting other drivers at the state level,” he said. But you’re more or less competing against yourself, because the course is the same. Sometimes it just comes down to whether you have a good or bad day driving.”
The competition serves to quiz the modern driver on the most recent state codes, as well as testing overall knowledge and driving skill. Segments include proper railroad crossing, controlled turns, parallel parking and dimensional clearances.
“There’s a part where you have to find five defects in a matter of minutes,” said Choffel, who has fun competing at the state level. “I enjoy that part because I work with my bus all day. I should know if anything’s wrong with it.”
A written exam accompanies the driving tests, pushing competitive drivers to learn all they can about state driving laws and regulations.
“Every time you look at the book, you learn something new,” said Choffel. “Everyday drivers should have to take a course every few years to stay sharp. Some people don’t keep up with the newest laws.”
While his height often gives him a visibility advantage in competitions, Choffel says the more challenging portions of competition include backwards stalls, which make gauging distances more difficult.
Choffel’s 17 or more years of behind-the-wheel experience, along with some initial persuasion from his uncle, Harold Girardat, owner of Girardat Transportation, kept him sharp through local, state and national competitions throughout the past 15 years.
“I started competing around the mid-1990s; my uncle talked me into it,” Choffel said. “I won states two times and I’ve been there about five.”
Choffel’s third-place win at the Pennsylvania competition in State College earlier this summer is just one notch in his seatbelt, but one Gov. Tom Corbett deemed worthy of recognition during School Bus Safety Week, which ran from Oct. 22 to 26.
“The safety of all Pennsylvania school students is a concern of the highest consequence, and all highway users should unite in the safe sharing of roadways throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Corbett released in a proclamation.
This year’s theme, “Stand Back from the Yellow and Black,” referred to the safe distance students should stand from the bus. For drivers like Choffel, the theme has a double meaning which he hopes will address several major safety concerns.
“Tailgating is number one,” he said, observing that most rear-end accidents could be alleviated by a safe distance. “That’s my biggest pet peeve.”
General distractions, including drivers using handheld devices such as cell phones, are a close second for the safety-conscious driver, said Choffel, recounting moments when he’s seen drivers talking on cell phones, putting on makeup and on one memorable occasion, eating a sandwich and reading the newspaper.
“You see some weird stuff behind the wheel,” he said.
While observation of safety violations can be jarring, Choffel enjoys the new challenges each morning brings, from inclement weather to dampened spirits.
“It could be raining, it could be snowing, a kid could have a bad day,” he said.
Good or bad, rain or shine, Meadville High students can always find Choffel’s bus first in line.
“I like to be consistent,” Choffel said of his leading position at the end-of-the-day bus train. “The kids know exactly where to find me.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.