After an array of test questions, safety checks on a school bus and road course assessments, Hastings bus driver Denise Becker took home first place at an annual bus driving competition in June.
It was the second time that she had won the Minnesota School Bus Road-eo - an annual statewide bus safety competition between bus drivers. Becker has driven for the Hastings Bus Company for 25 years and the competition helps in her day-to-day work, she said.
"When I compete in these competitions it really makes me focus on using every inch of that mirror, every skill that you use to drive a school bus," she said.
Everything "clicked" at this year's competition and she felt calm and focused during it, Becker said. She scored 688 points, 10 points ahead of the second-place driver.
Most years, she said she places highly, but she has "on and off days." She compared it to a star athlete, who might perform well most of the time, but can have a down day.
"I enjoy it and the fact that I like to learn ... even if I haven't done very well, it has made me a better driver" Becker said.
The competition consists of a written test that queries drivers on various aspects of bus driving, bus pre-drive inspections and the driving course, said Steve LaTour, with the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association. The association runs the event in conjunction with the Minnesota Association of Pupil Transportation, Minnesota State Patrol and the state's division of vehicle services.
The competition is designed with safety in mind, he said.
In the competition, LaTour said the test questions can be as specific as: how many feet before a child pickup do you activate certain bus systems?
The pre-drive bus defects can be as small as a loose seat cushion, while the driving test varies between different turn types and properly handling railroad crossings, LaTour said.
"Really the big idea is that it's all about safety and making yourself a better driver," he said. "And when you're doing this, you're bringing this back to your children."
Despite consistently placing well and winning the competition in 2014, Becker said she doesn't often seek out affirmations for her work. But she does take pride in the feat for what it represents, and for the recognition in a job that she feels can sometimes be overlooked.
"I take pride in it because I'm able to keep these kids safe ... it builds up the confidence that when the next blizzards hits, 'OK Denise you can do this,'" she said.
The June event drew in about 55 people this year, LaTour said. In the past though, about 100 people would have attended the event and it's one of the organizer's goals to get it back to those numbers, he said.
For the drivers, the event offers up a way of connecting with their contemporaries.
Becker said the event doesn't get too competitive, outside of the competition itself, and that conversations are usually lighthearted or focus on what one another's work is like.
"The state competition is fun," Becker said. "It's generally not everybody is out for blood type of thing. We sit around, we talk, we laugh. It's fun."
Becker was one of three local drivers at the competition, said Terry Johnson, the Hastings terminal manager for the Hastings Bus Company. She's someone who often is willing to give a helping hand and he said her win helps cement the company's emphasis on safety.
"She's a very good driver," Johnson said. "[Her win] shows how serious we are about safety and ... take everything serious in what we do."