Leanne Burns knew something wasn't right when she caught a whiff of tobacco smoke coming from the back of her bus.
Thinking it would be OK to fire up a cigarette and vent the exhaust out the open window, the Grade 12 student turned rather indignant when Burns told him in no uncertain terms he'd be wise to butt it out.
"He argued with me that he was allowed, but that never happened again," said Burns. "That was my first year, and other than that, I can't think of anything that has really been negative."
Today marks the start of her seventh school year behind the wheel of her big yellow bus. She's been delivering students from the rural eastern edge of the city to Blackburn and Pineview elementary schools and Prince George secondary school throughout that time and loves her job with Diversified Transportation, the School District 57 contractor that provides busing service for 4,500 students each school day.
Most kids know how to behave on the bus and Burns says they don't usually create any problems, not if they want to avoid a visit to the principal's office.
It's the Grade 8s or 9s who are new to busing and seem to think they have something to show [who create problems]," said Burns. "If they've been on you bus the entire time, as they grow older and grow along with you, things get better."
Ensuring the safety of her students is always the prime concern for Burns, whether that means brake tests, crawling under the bus in the snow for daily exterior inspections, fire escape drills, or teaching kids what to watch for before they cross the road.
Irresponsible motorists are a constant challenge to a school bus driver, as Burns found out one day when she went with her husband to pick up their daughter, who was being dropped off by another bus at a rural stop. Just as the young girl was about to step out into the roadway, the bus driver saw an approaching vehicle driven by an elderly woman who ignored the flashing red stop lights of the bus and leaned on his horn. The girl froze just as the car blew by.
Speeding is another problem, especially on the Old Cariboo Highway near Pineview school. In the morning and afternoon hours on school days, the posted 70 kilometres per hour speed limit is cut to 30 km/hr, but at least one driver was clocked doing 103 km/hr on that stretch during school hours.
Winter driving comes with the territory on the buses sometimes that's not much fun for the drivers, especially on rural roads. Most years, by the time Christmas break rolls around, Burns has had to put on tire chains three or four times and if it gets stuck, it's the driver's responsibility to try to shovel themselves out of that situation.
"The roads are horrible, I've gone backwards down hills and ended up sideways in ditches and I've had kids on my bus when we've hit ditches," said Burns. "Some buses have to chain up weekly to make it up hills. Usually what happens is when you've got two vehicles approaching each other [on a narrow] road when it's winter and it's not plowed, cars won't let the bus go by, they continue on. We move over as far as we can to avoid collisions but often get taken into the ditch. People just aren't thinking. If everybody went slow, we'd be alright."
But Burns says the bad days when she starts second-guessing her career choice are far outweighed by the good.
"When kids get in the bus and they're so happy to see you they want to show you their report cards or show you their macaroni drawing before they go home to their parents, those are the days that make you love your job," said Burns.
She's famous around Pineview for dressing up her bus for Halloween, an annual competition among Diversified drivers. All the neighbourhood kids near her Pooley Road home help decorate and Burns has won the haunted bus contest for the past four years.
Why become a bus driver? For Burns, it came as result of conversation with a friend who was already working as a bus driver, who convinced Burns and another friend to apply, and both were successful in getting jobs. Burns has since gotten her mother, Darlene Smith, to join the fleet of Diversified drivers as well.
All drivers require a Class 2 licence, as well as a clean driving record and no criminal background. Many are retired or semi-retired from their career jobs. Drivers are on probation for six months after they start.
"We have a lot of people apply and only take a few for the job," said Bob Webster, an assistant manager with Diversified. "Our turnover is very low, we generally only lose people if they move. Once people start doing the job steady they just love it, and we rarely lose people at all."
The pay ranges from about $15-21 per hour, with benefits, and Burns is on the job 4 1/2 hours each school day for her split shifts. She makes one run in the morning and two return runs each day. She also drives charter buses for Diversified, taking tour groups or child care groups to Jasper, Barkerville, the Mount Milligan mine or in-town field trips.
"If you like people and you're OK with driving it's a wonderful job," said Burns. "If you relate well to kids you'll have a great time but if you don't like kids and all you want to do is put the hammer down they will rebel against you just like they do with their parents. It's got to be a compromise."