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Bus driver honored for precision
School bus driver Neil McBrayer surveys the parking lot of Matt Elementary School while waiting for students to board his bus. McBrayer was honored in a recent Bus Safety Road-e-o. - photo by Autumn Vetter

The wheels on the bus go round and round. And when Neil McBrayer’s driving, they do so with even more precision.

That’s what makes the Forsyth County school bus driver the fourth safest in the United States and Canada.

McBrayer recently earned the honor during the National School Transportation Association’s School Bus Driver International Safety Competition, dubbed the Bus Safety Road-e-o.

“I was actually floored when it happened because it wasn’t something I was expecting,” McBrayer said.

“When I [placed second] on the state level, the guy that was with me, he had to tell me that it was me that had just been announced. I looked at him and I couldn’t believe him.”

McBrayer’s ascension happened quickly. Not that long ago, he worked for General Motors as an assembly plant repairman. He’s been driving for the local school system for four years, but has competed in the Road-e-o since the beginning.

“It was not in anticipation of winning, but as a learning experience,” he said.

But during the county’s event this year, he placed in the top three. He moved onto the state level, where he finished second.

That gave him a pass into the international competition in Wisconsin, where he faced nearly 50 others in various events.

The competition was more than just turning and stopping. McBrayer described the complicated obstacle course as focusing on the “skills that are involved in everyday bus driving.”

“It’s a lot of driving around cones and obstacles, but it’s also precision,” he said. “It’s things like driving a bus through five sets of tennis balls and you only have an inch and a half on each side and you’ve got to put both sets of wheels through those.

“It’s also turning and student pickups that you can stop when you are supposed to.”

His exemplary driving skills during the school year last year earned McBrayer a promotion. He’s now a lead bus driver, said Garry Puetz, the system’s transportation director.

“The lead drivers, they can pick up and go any time … they’ve got to be among the best of our best because they’ve got to do things that other drivers might shy away from,” Puetz said.

Just to make it out of the county competition takes skill, Puetz said. The drivers practice on a course of nine different tasks, from parallel parking to maneuvering between obstacles. They “take the Road-e-o very seriously.”

“They have stepped up to the competition every year and that has really led to a lot of our drivers doing a great job,” Puetz said.

McBrayer’s international performance is a feat to which his peers can aspire, Puetz said.

“All of our drivers are getting better because of his example and because of the pressure of wanting to compete and stay up with these guys,” he said.

In his history with the competition, McBrayer said he’s never placed fifth or first — always somewhere in the middle. It just fuels him to keep improving.

The 43rd annual Road-e-o will be held July in Oklahoma. McBrayer hopes to attend as the state’s top driver.

“I’ve always been in the same district as the first-place guy, so I usually come in second to him at all the levels,” he said. “I’ve never actually placed first, but that’s my goal this year.”