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West Vancouver Blue Bus driver named safest in Canada

To be considered, nominees for the award must have driven 15 years or 400,000 kilometres without a preventable accident
Robert Bird, a West Vancouver Blue Bus driver for 28 years, has been named Canada's safest bus driver of the year by the U.S.-based National Safety Council. | Paul McGrath / North Shore News

While bus driver Robert Bird enjoys playing the poker game of life, he doesn’t gamble when it comes to the safety of his passengers.

“Watch that speed and match it with the conditions of the road. Stay away from clusters – just hang back so you’re more visible,” he said. “It’s not a race.”

After a nearly 35-year career in transit operation – including a 28-year tenure with West Vancouver’s Blue Bus service – Bird is this year’s sole Canadian winner of the Joseph M. Kaplan Safe Driver of the Year Award, which is handed out by the U.S.-based National Safety Council.

In order to be considered, nominees must meet the minimum requirement of 15 years or 250,000 miles (402,000 kilometres) driven without a preventable accident. Then the candidates are judged on their total career driving record before a top driver from each of 10 regions is selected.

“Robert is a great driver and he really deserves this international recognition as one of the safest drivers on the continent,” said Cornel Neagu, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 134, which represents 150 staff at Blue Bus.

“All of Robert’s fellow drivers and mechanics want to congratulate him on winning this very impressive award,” Neagu said. “We are all extremely proud of his sterling safety record.”

Bird says the foundations for his good habits were developed when he started driving streetcars in downtown Toronto in 1989.

“My whole career [was] aided in driving safely by that stopping distance,” he said. “It sounds rudimentary, but for me it was always a biggie.”

Managing people a large part of safe operation, driver says

But there’s more to safe operation of a transit vehicle than driving skills. Much of Bird’s ability to get from A to B in good order is managing the passengers onboard. Luckily, he has a system.

“I basically run a casino at my house. I’ve got a pool table and host a poker game once a month,” he said. “So I enjoy the poker game of life.”

According to Bird, there are eight personalities: the eagle, the elephant, the fox, the fish, the lion, the mouse, the rock and the shark. The most important part of the game is figuring out what people are. Rocks, for example, will sit there and mind their own business. But you have to watch out for lions, the bullies of the world.

“I play poker all day long with people,” he said. “You treat Mrs. Smith going to church on a Sunday different than you do the drunk on a Saturday night.”

Bird will employ “verbal judo” to get himself out of jams. “And they don’t even know that they’ve been disciplined or talked to or said hello to in a different way, because I just went about it pretty good.”

Just recently, he picked up some high school kids on his 253 Caulfeild route around noon. The bell started ringing at every stop, but no one was getting off.

“I just said, ‘Hey everybody, can have your attention? There seems to be a problem with my buzzer. I’m now going to go express to Park Royal. If you do want off, come see me. Thank you.’”

Suddenly, the bell stopped ringing. “It’s the poker game,” Bird said.

At the end of the day, keeping his passengers happy is what he loves most about the job. 

"You learn pretty quick to be friendly, because you need 40 friends on your bus," Bird said. "I've always enjoyed that side of it, because when you've got 40 smiling faces, how much easier is it to get to the end of the line safely?"

‘It’s more than just me’

To accept his Safe Driver of the Year Award, Bird will travel to New Orleans with his wife Joy in October for a big gala event. Both his union and the Blue Bus social club are chipping in $1,000 each toward the trip.

He gives his thanks to his wife, who helps start his days off smoothly with a coffee and nice lunch ready every morning, and to his fellow staff, trainers, mechanics, fellow operators and the union.

“It’s more than just me. The mechanics have to have that bus running tickety boo for you. And dispatchers have to have you scheduled to get a layover at the end of the line, so you can take off on your next trip safely,” Bird said.

“It takes a village.”

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