A Would-Be Road Warrior Bowls Them All Over

Once I read the letter from the Orange County Transit District, inviting me (as a magazine writer) to slip behind the wheel of a 40-foot vehicle costing almost $200,000, I was hooked. The district's public-relations office had also included a teaser in its letter: ''Are you a good enough driver to stop on a dime?''

After accepting by telephone, I learned that I would be the amateur in a group of professional bus drivers competing for fame, fortune, and prizes in the company's annual ''Bus Road-eo'' for employees. My route would take me over a serpentine obstacle course at the transit district's huge maintenance yard in Anaheim, Calif.

The course had been professionally mined with standard street hazards. Well, I got more laughs than Jackie Gleason playing Ralph Kramden. Overall, I knocked down at least 60 plastic orange traffic cones and had the fastest time and the lowest score of all 73 competitors.

I discovered that all transit district buses are equipped with automatic transmissions, power brakes, and power steering. There is also a two-way radio that instantly links the driver with the company's security office at the press of a button. In the newer models, bulletproof glass protects the area around the driver.

When the district's operations people put me in the driver's seat and gave me preliminary instructions, it was merely to acquaint me with the locations of the controls. I must admit that I was impressed with the steering wheel, which was as big around as the top of an oil drum -- intimidating only until one discovers how easy it is to turn.

So that the driver never has to take his hands off the wheel, the vehicle's turn signals are built into the floor, like the dimmer switch in most regular cars. But as with anything that involves the control of power, one must acquire a feel for the operation of a bus. My biggest problem was learning how much brake pressure to apply to avoid sudden stops.

I NEVER did get to see a copy of the Road-eo Rule Book, but I did learn that every driver starts out with 700 points. At least one judge rides inside the bus, with the other judges and a timekeeper working at checkpoints along the way. Make a mistake, and they take away a certain number of points. The driver who surrenders the fewest number of points at the end of the run is the winner.

The competition consisted of maneuvering through 14 manmade obstacles, including backing into a parking space that seemed no bigger than a holiday tablecloth. Officials waved the requirement for me, the consensus being that if I tried to back the 109-inch-wide monster into the designated spot, Cinderella would have gotten home from the ball that night before I did.

What did go on my record, though, was my ability to size up potential trouble situations, such as starting, stopping, and curb-side pickups. They also marked down how well I used my turn indicators.

''You've got 7-1/2 minutes to negotiate the course,'' my instructor told me. ''That is really a lot of time, so make it work for you.''

I was all right coming out of the straightway at the beginning of the course. However, things immediately took a turn for the worse when I had to slip that steel monster through a dense little forest of orange traffic cones.

Up front, where I was sitting, things looked great. But I wasn't very far into my turn when I first heard snickers and then guffaws coming from my 10 volunteer passengers. That's when I knew I had confused bowling with driving.

Of the 100-plus traffic cones lined up along the course, my instructor told me that I had put at least 60 of them into orbit.

I ended my run by driving between two lanes of six padded trash barrels that had been arranged to look like a horn of plenty, the first set of barrels being considerably farther apart than the final set.

Forget the barrels on the right, I told myself. Drive as close to the barrels on the left as you can and your chance for success will increase. I somehow managed to knock down all six barrels on the right anyway.

UP ahead, where the front tire on the driver's side was supposed to come to rest, loomed that aggravating dime. With the sun reflecting off it, that 10-cent piece looked like a lighted candle flickering in the darkness.

The Road-eo timekeeper clocked me at two minutes and 31 seconds for the course, the fastest of the day, but not too smart since rushing things had hurt my accuracy and cost me a lot of points.

Personally, I wouldn't give a nickel to hear the rest of this dime novel. You're right, I missed parking the bus's left front tire on the coin. But if that dime had been a manhole cover or even the size of one of Cher's loop earrings, the bus certainly would have been close!

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