Buses on screen: Michael
You may have noticed that the streets of Belfast were unusually quiet on Wednesday this week. I think I know why. Word had spread that I was being taught to drive a bus that day and, well, folk just stayed away.
'It's better to be safe than sorry', seemed to be the general consensus around the city.
In fact, from the moment I announced on Facebook that I was taking the Translink bus driving course, the trepidation was tangible.
"Heaven help us all..." said one witty commentator.
"Clear the streets!" "Advise Emergency Services" "Pre-notify next of kin!" Like the proverbial buses, three came along at once.
Then, of course, there followed all the funny YouTube clips. Such as Reg Varney being saucy in On The Buses, Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do Av 'Em getting dragged down the high street by the Number 24 and, of course, the trailer from that film where Sandra Bullock struggles to control a bus careering at breakneck speed through downtown LA while the ashen-faced passengers scream in terror...
Yes, you could say people were almost as nervous for their own safety as they were pessimistic about my chances of success.
So, where, when and why on earth was I doing this?
Translink, the Northern Ireland public transport company, had organised a series of special Have A Go Days for women to try their hand at bus driving.
The purpose of this initiative is to provide first-hand experience, in the hope that it might encourage more women to apply for jobs in what is usually considered to be a male-dominated area.
Since I'm always up for a challenge and game for anything, obviously there was only one person this newspaper could send to the special Press event. The training day took place at Transport Training Services HQ at Nutt's Corner, which meant that all the actual practical driving exercises happened within the safety of Nutt's Corner Racing Track and NOT in Belfast city centre during rush hour as most people had seemed to presume (including me!).
Furthermore, there were to be no actual passengers either, so the notion of people begging to be allowed to get off the bus was never even an issue.
So, you may think, where was the fun and what exactly was the challenge?
Well, the challenge was to drive two vehicles – first a single-decker coach, then a double-decker bus – around three laps of the circuit, without physical assistance, avoiding obstacles on the way. (Including people, vehicles and buildings.)
Okay, there weren't any actual chicanes or hairpin bends, but still, it did feel pretty daunting as I took my seat and strapped myself in.
And let's not pretend it was all plain sailing from the outset either. For a start, I couldn't tell the gas from the brakes. That doesn't exactly instill confidence in your so-called 'driving skills' now, does it?
When the instructor said "put your foot on the accelerator", I came over all blonde, hesitated for a few moments, then engaged the brakes instead.
The reason for this – I think – was that I'd actually been driving for so long (30 years) that I normally just do it instinctively without thinking in my own car. But here the pedals were in different places – because it was an automatic – and so I was forced to think and then (annoyingly) got it wrong and had to ask the instructor which was which!
I felt like a complete idiot, but I had an audience by this stage of men in hi-vis jackets with clipboards and I was damned if I was going to let the side down.
Girl Power and all that!
So, you could say it was already proving to be a challenge before I'd even moved the damn bus an inch!
Then there was the size of the steering wheel (huge), the position of the assorted mirrors (all over the place, except where you expect them to be), the fact that these buses were automatic (so no clutch to get mistaken for a brake) and then... well... the sheer scale of the thing.
Fortunately though, they weren't expecting a three-point turn or a reverse park, just a simple half-mile loop with a few traffic cones and cordons to negotiate.
And, incredibly, once I'd managed my first lap, slowly and carefully, I took to it like a duck to water.
Of course it was about four times wider than the wee Mini I'm used to driving, so I was very aware of this going around even the slightest bend. I started out very slowly, but with each trip I got more confident and speeded up slightly until I was going at a regular pace for the duration.
By the third lap in the double-decker I was actually confident enough to alter the air conditioning and flick on the windscreen wipers. I was just about to start singing The Wheels on the Bus and pumping the horn in unison, but sadly my time was up and I was flagged down to stop by a pit-stop full of spectators who were cheering, whistling and giving me the thumbs-up.
So it gives me great pleasure – and a side order of smugness – to tell all ye of little faith that I did in fact pass the test with flying colours. No wild-eyed passengers screamed in abject fear; no little old ladies perished at pelican crossings; no Grade 1 listed buildings were reduced to dusty rubble; no traffic lights/trees/lollipop men were uprooted and no low-level bridges were smashed to smithereens.
In fact, "the entire event passed off without incident," as they say in the PSNI.
Sorry to disappoint you! But Penelope Pitstop I ain't (even though that's one of my nicknames).
Au contraire, I actually pride myself on my skill and untarnished record as a driver. Amazing, actually, to think that something so big and powerful could be so easy to handle.
In fact, I actually said so to the lovely instructor Kieran without so much as a hint of innuendo.
I was that serious.
So yes, I enjoyed my day on the buses immensely.
If I hadn't already decided I want to be an astronaut when I grow up, I'd definitely consider becoming a bus driver.
Denise Farrell (37) is a bus driver and lives in Newry with her son Aaron (16). She says:
I have always liked driving, so when I saw a Translink advertisement for drivers I decided to apply. I wasn't particularly attached to my old career – I was working in bars and restaurants at the time and becoming a driver seemed more interesting.
To apply all you need is five years' driving experience and to be over 21. You sit an interview, a medical then a maths and English aptitude test. Once you get through that you're put on an intense, six-week driving course. At the end of it all you sit a test for your Public Carrying Vehicle Licence. If you pass you're handed your uniform and assigned to your depot where you get a mentor to guide you on your first week on the road.
I've been driving now for six years. I began on a part-time basis but now I'm full-time. Part-time is a good way to start off. You get to familiarise yourself with the buses, routes and equipment.
My driving takes me around Northern Ireland and down to Dublin. There are five shifts each day and we work five days out of seven. We always finish by 7pm though which is good as I can spend time with my son.
I do get comments from the public about being a bus driver. They're mostly from tall men – I'm 5ft1ins so they're quite surprised to see a small thing like me behind the wheel of a bus. I've rarely had any abuse though. I think women are better suited for a job like this because we can handle stress better. I don't get shouted at by drunk people – normally they just flirt with me instead!
At the depot we're one big team and everyone looks out for everyone else. If you're having trouble parking or manoeuvring a bus someone will come and help you and they won't make jokes about women drivers. Once you can drive a bus though they're all the same. Double-decker buses might look massive but they're actually shorter than single decker buses and exactly the same to drive.
I love the people side of the job. You get a lot of craic from the passengers and meet new people every day. You start to know your regulars as well. The only downside is when you break down and are late for your next run. It is also very frustrating when you get stuck behind a tractor, or other slow-moving vehicle on a narrow country road and the driver won't pull over. After five miles driving at a snail's pace you start grinding your teeth a bit.
People might think that being a bus driver means that you're butch but that's not the case. I like having my nails and tan done and taking care of myself. Female bus drivers can be glamorous too."