I’LL put my hands up and admit that I’m not the greatest driver in the world. My career behind the wheel got off to a shaky enough start 16 years ago when I just about passed my driving test first time - with 13 minor faults, the significance of this figure seemingly setting the tone for the rest of my days in charge of a moving vehicle.
Touch wood, I’ve never actually had an accident or caused injury to myself or any other road user, but I’ve encountered my fair share of bumps, dents and scrapes.
At my hen party in the summer, all my ‘chicks’ were asked to write a funny memory of me down on a post-it note, these were then swapped and read aloud for the group to enjoy and for me to endure.
Practically every single one involved an account of my interesting interpretation of the Highway Code, from the use of roundabouts, battling through floods, and driving off with personal items sitting on the roof of my car.
I’ll treasure them forever because they do even make me smile, but when I was asked recently if I could consider driving something else - a double decker Translink bus - needless to say, I was not grinning from ear to ear.
In a bid to entice more female drivers into the driving seat, the company recently held two Have A Go events, in which local women were offered the opportunity to take some of their vehicles for a run around a very simple circuit at Transport Training Services, close to Nutt’s Corner.
Ladies would also be able to find out more about careers with Translink, who are very keen to increase the number of women they employ - which currently accounts for just 5.5 per cent of their workforce.
Explaining more about the objective of the event was Translink group chief executive Catherine Mason, who said: “There might still be a general misconception that bus driving is only for men – this is far from the truth!
“There are more than 150 female bus drivers in Translink and nearly 50 of them have been with the company for over 10 years.
‘‘ There are many reasons to become a Translink bus driver, from attractive pay and final salary pension scheme, to free travel for employees, job security, good holidays and supervised training for a PCV license.”
Talking myself into feeling positive about my impending challenge, I reminded myself how reassured I always felt when I noted a lady driver in charge of any bus I was boarding.
I was a capable female driver with an unblemished licence - I trusted myself, didn’t I? Even if no one else did?
I set off for Nutt’s Corner on a wet Wednesday afternoon and quickly failed the first test sent my way - finding it. My sense of direction let me down, but my photographer did not, and before I could find myself doing a third loop of Poleglass, I managed to overcome adversity and arrive at the venue in one piece.
The first vehicle I was to try was a single deck coach - just a modest affair really.
Translink’s lead instructor Wilfie Ward, whom I was delighted to learn would be by my side throughout the afternoon, jumped into the driving seat first and gave me the lowdown on how it all worked.
The buses are all automatic, so I was relieved at the prospect of not having to worry about gears. Wilfie pointed out the rest of the controls: “No clutch, just your accelerator and brake, let your hand brake off, check your wing mirrors, move off.”
Despite my fears, I soon realised that I was not going to do any damage; you had to apply a fair bit of pressure to the gas to get the bus moving, which was a blessing.
Wilfie was encouraging and helpful as I slowly drove the bus along the track, easing around the corners, and slowing down to approach the real test of the day - getting into position to drive through a single lane. He instructed me to turn the steering wheel so that I was ‘sitting’ directly over the single white lane, and keep an eye on my mirrors to ensure that I could see even sections of grey tarmac to my left and grass to my right in my rear view.
To my intense surprise, I performed the task without a hitch, and by the time I had embarked on my second lap, was feeling much more confident and even - dare I say it - enjoying myself!
Then a curve ball was thrown at me - in the shape of a double decker.
My sense of foreboding heightened when Wilfie explained to me that the controls in this vehicle were a little different, in that when you let off the hand brake, it would automatically begin to move forward, so you had to be ready with the brake.
As we eased off, I was surprised to note that despite being effectively twice the size of the last bus, it did not feel any ‘heavier’ to drive.
Manipulating the single lane was equally straightforward, and as we chatted - yes, I even found the confidence to multi-task - Wilfie remarked that what I was doing was no different really to squeezing in between two lanes of traffic, yet the “power of perception”, and the sight of moving cars as opposed to traffic cones made you automatically more panicky.
Suffice to say, when I eased the bus in to its final resting place, I was almost sorry my journey was over.
Beaming with enthusiasm for her job as a driver was Newtownabbey woman Julie O’Neill, who was recruited for the company at the first ever Have a Go day 19 years ago.
“I always loved driving, loved buses,” said Julie, adding that as a child she remembers sitting in the front seat upstairs in a double decker, eyes wide with excitement.
As an adult, she had desk jobs with the Post Office, the bank, and Belfast City Council, until her dream job came up whilst she was on holiday, and her mother called her to tell her that Translink were recruiting.
She found that mastering the art of bus driving came easily to her, and it “didn’t even cross my mind” to feel intimidated by working in what was predominantly a mostly male environment.
Instead, she found herself working alongside “a great bunch of guys.”
She continues: “I don’t think I felt scared, I knew the area I was going to be on so I knew quite a few people getting on the bus. I think if you think this is going to be hard, then it’s going to be hard.
‘‘ It’s the sort of job if you let it get to you it’s going to get to you.
“You need to be confident of that bus, because if you let that bus rule you, you’re beat,” she says, adding that the job also requires you to be able to practically predict what other road users are going to do before they do it.
‘‘You have to have your wits about you, but I love it.”
I met another lady who loved driving so much that she had made a business out of it - driving instructor Siobhan Hourican came all the way from Warrenpoint to take her skills behind the wheel to a new level.
“I’ve been a driving instructor for 13 years and I just love driving and working with the public,” said the 46-year-old. “This was a bit of a challenge. It would be great to work with Translink too as they are a big company.”