Taking things for granted can cut a coach career short

On a November Saturday morning we were on a mission when we converged on the lot where our used coach inventory was parked.

Dave Millhouser

Every bus was started, and the antifreeze checked, so nothing would freeze in the winter.

I was working with my pal Oakie when we waddled up to a Scenicruiser and it refused to crank. Why jump-start it when you can wrench the parking brake off and push it with another bus? What could go wrong?

Sitting in the drivers seat, I stepped on the clutch, shifted into first, and waited for Oakie to gently nudge me from behind. He doesn’t do “gentle,” so the Scenic commenced an energetic roll.

Popping the clutch, I awaited the lurch and roar signifying the engine had started and was building air.

Nada. It was a stealth bus rolling quietly downhill towards a gaggle of its bussy buddies parked at the bottom of the lot.

Well, it wasn’t that quiet. I was crying and yelling for my momma.

After steering around the other coaches and coasting to a stop, I rolled under the bus to find that it had no drive shaft. Turns out that a couple of months before we had taken the shaft off that coach and sold it to a customer whose u-joints pooped out.

Both Oakie and I were involved in that sale, and managed to forget about it.  Between the two of us, there was insufficient brain matter to avert potential disaster.

Gee whiz, every other time I’d gotten in a bus it had a drive shaft, so I figured this one did, too.

In a recent article in Metro magazine, Steve Mentzer wrote about a concept called “practical drift.” If I understood it correctly, he made the point that “we are all prone to drift away from the correct or proper way of doing things.”

There’s tons of good stuff in the article, but my big takeaway was that after a while, barring an event of some sort, we begin to take things for granted.

We take shortcuts because we’ve checked this gizmo a billion times and it’s been OK, so why keep checking?

Sometimes we give it a cursory look, assuming it’s the same as always, and convince ourselves all is well.

It’s not just mechanical stuff. If you pass a blind driveway a thousand times and there’s never anything there, the temptation is to do a quick glance and assume nothing’s coming.

On the rare occasion that a car pops out you yelp, “Where the heck did that come from?” (Or a four-letter variant.)

This concept may be part of the reason why drivers’ safety performance tends to steadily improve with experience in their first couple of years, but then peaks and begins to go backwards unless there is intervention in terms of additional training.

Experience can be good — or bad. There’s a balance between “I’ve seen this before and am ready for what’s likely to happen” and “that low tire pressure indicator has given me a bunch of false alarms, so it must be lying now.”

Years ago while evaluating a bus that was going to be traded on a new one, something seemed amiss. It turned out that what felt like poorly adjusted brakes was no brakes at all on the tag axle.

The operator’s solution to ruptured diaphragms was to remove the spider, chamber, drums and shoes. An astute guy wouldn’t have assumed everything was there, or maybe run it over the pit first.

Just because something is usually OK doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay alert. It’s good to periodically remind ourselves of that. When a reporter asked Captain Smith (before he took command of the Titanic) to describe his 40-year career, he said “uneventful.”

Back in the day an Eagle with an 8V71 and an Allison transmission was the bus version of a dragster. A customer’s lease had ended and he had dropped one off at our remote lot.

Randy and Slap drove me there so that I could fire that baby up and move it to our facility. Heck, it was only a 5-mile trip, so a pre-trip inspection seemed excessive (and beyond my skills).

Pulling out, I noticed a gasoline truck barreling down the highway toward me, but gee, this bus was a rocket. Why wait? Stomping the throttle, I whipped across the road just before the truck roared past — and my engine stalled.

It turns out that even checking the oil would have revealed that the miscreant operator had limped in on a supplemental electric fuel pump, which he took home with him. It ran until the fuel in the heads was exhausted, and quit.

Hard to count how many mistakes I made on this single event. I nearly left the industry in a blaze of glory.

 Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at Davemillhouser@gmail.com.

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