Ron Maurer responds with a short answer when asked about the most challenging aspect of his job.

“Other drivers,” Maurer says.

Maurer has enough to deal with as he maneuvers a 40-foot long, 36,000-pound school bus over snowy mountain passes and along icy Central Oregon roadways, shuttling area high school and middle school students to various winter athletic events.

But defensive driving is a top priority for Maurer and the other 135 bus drivers for Bend-La Pine Schools.

“You’re always watching out for the other guy,” says Maurer, 63, a bus driver for four years. “You want to make sure you have room to stop, you have room to maneuver, you have room to be aware. And also maintain control of your bus with the kids that are on it. Safety of the kids is our goal.”

Only about a dozen of the 135 bus drivers for Bend-La Pine make regular trips over the mountain passes for athletic and other school events, according to Kim Crabtree, director of transportation for Bend-La Pine Schools. Some have second jobs, young children, or simply do not prefer to drive at night. Many athletic trips do not return to Central Oregon until after 1 a.m.

Drivers can choose which trips they would like to make and are selected on a rotation basis, Crabtree explains. They must have a year of bus driving experience before making long trips for extracurricular events.

After Bend High, Mountain View and Summit moved to the Class 6A Mountain Valley Conference with Salem-area schools starting last fall, sports teams are making more trips over the pass for athletic contests. But there is no shortage of confident, experienced Bend-La Pine bus drivers, whose pay ranges from $17.09 to $24.81, according to Crabtree.

“We were taking a lot of trips over the pass before, anyway,” Crabtree says. “Our drivers are used to driving in the snow. I mean, we’re doing it every day right now. They are seasoned drivers. Most of ours have been previous long-haul truckers who have lots of winter driving, or they’ve just lived in Bend or La Pine for most of their life and they’re comfortable driving in it.”

Scott Steinhauer, 48, has been a school bus driver in the La Pine area for three-and-a-half years. He was a former truck driver for Pacific Metal in Eugene and is familiar with the mountain passes between Eugene and Central Oregon.

“Not to say that you’re not conscientious of the road conditions, but the buses we have handle really well and it’s not that hard for me, really,” Steinhauer says. “I’m more worried about the other traffic as opposed to myself. That’s what will get you in trouble. People will slow down, or slide and take the whole road up.”

Crabtree decides if and when to cancel a trip over the pass due to weather. She says she monitors various websites every day, including tripcheck.com, and has canceled only a couple of trips over the passes this winter.

The four main areas to which Bend-La Pine school programs travel that can cause winter driving issues are U.S. Highway 20 over Santiam Pass, U.S. Highway 26 past Mount Hood, state Highway 58 over Willamette Pass, and U.S. Highway 97 south toward Klamath Falls.

Bus drivers are required to chain up whenever more than 3 inches of fresh snow has fallen on the roadway.

“By law we have to do that because they’re heavy and also just for extra protection,” Crabtree says. “Even though we have drop-down chains on our buses, we still hard-chain. They have extra training here. They take a field-trip class that gives them some different scenarios. We practice hard-chaining.”

Most of the newer school buses, including the one Steinhauer drives, include drop-down (or spot) chains that come down with the push of a button.

“It’s kind of a new thing,” Steinhauer says. “You hit the button and the spot chains drop. If the spot chains work, that’s great, but if not I’ll pull over and chain the bus up.”

Maurer says he is lucky that he has not had to chain up yet this winter. But he notes that he is certainly prepared and capable if the need arises. He adds that mountain passes are not the only significant challenge for school bus drivers. Sometimes parking lots or school zones can create a quagmire while maneuvering the unwieldy bus.

“You just have to watch your pivot points and your points of reference to get it turned around,” Maurer says. “Or you learn to back up with spotters to help you, if you get caught somewhere you shouldn’t have been in the first place.”

Maurer calls himself a “sports junkie,” who relishes the benefits of making trips to high school sports events.

“This is an easy way to go watch them and get to enjoy them,” Maurer says. “And it’s fun to talk to the kids on the way over and fun to talk to them on the way back.”

Steinhauer says the coaches keep the kids in line, and on the way to the contests they are typically quiet and focused as they mentally prepare.

He says he usually does not return from over-the-pass trips until sometime between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 am.

“On the way home,” Steinhauer says, “Sixty to 70 percent of them fall asleep anyway.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,

mmorical@bendbulletin.com

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