“Make every trip your first trip,” says professional coach driver Neil Taylor.
Neil travels across B.C. in all kinds of weather, with the most valuable of cargo – people in need of medical attention. He drives for Northern Health Connections (NHC) which delivers low-cost transportation to Northern B.C. residents who require medical care that’s unavailable in their communities, or who are returning home after being taken by ambulance to emergency care. Neil’s employer, Diversified Transportation Ltd. provides the bus service under contract to Northern Health, the provincial health authority that delivers the NHC program.
When you’re operating a 55,000-pound piece of equipment you want to be on your toes,” says Neil who recently shared his insights and experience with us. “I might know the road and conditions but I still drive every route as if it’s the first time, to stay sharp.”
Neil and his fellow 11 NHC drivers also stay “fresh” by taking training several times a year that includes using a simulator that sharpens their skills for winter driving, handling tire blowouts, avoiding animal collisions and handling just about any situation a driver could encounter. They also rotate the routes they drive. “If you drive the same route all the time you become complacent, things become routine,” says Regional Manager for Diversified Ltd./Northern Health Connections Dave Christie. “Our drivers travel a combined total of almost 1.1 million kilometres per year, so we move them around to keep their view new.”
Neil’s vigilance has served him well in his current and previous career. Before becoming a professional coach driver six years ago, he was a police officer for 35 years. “When you’re aware, you’re always ready.”
There’s plenty for Neil and his fellow NHC drivers to watch for. He can leave Prince Rupert in the rain, drive in snow at Rainbow Summit (25 kilometres away), and be on slush-covered ice by time he reaches Terrace less than two hours later. There are mountain passes, busy roads to navigate in the Lower Mainland and wildlife that could walk in front of his bus at all points in between. And it’s always possible to encounter irresponsible and unsafe motorists.
“If you’re looking less than a hundred feet in front of you, you’re in trouble, that’s when you get fatigued. Rotate your vision left and right, and look behind you – this keeps your brain active. If you’re still tired, pull over when it’s safe and take a break.”
Neil’s job requires him to keep his passengers’ care and comfort in mind, and respond to those with special needs. It can be a long haul from Prince George to Vancouver, particularly for people who may be already feeling ill or stressed.
NHC’s custom-built coaches and mini-buses are equipped with call buttons or driver alert cords. Patients often share their stories with Neil. “Personally connecting with clients makes them more at ease. This is a client-centred service.”
Weather, road conditions or clients can all affect a run’s timing. “You don’t rush. We have a schedule but you can’t put things in jeopardy to stay on schedule – that’s not an issue with my employer or Northern Health.”
For Neil, being ready for his drive starts the night before. “Before you go to bed you must be mentally, physically and emotionally prepared. You make sure your equipment is in perfect condition and know your vehicle.”
In the morning, Neil checks DriveBC and monitors the news. He also packs along his bicycle for when he’s finished his shift, as he believes exercise, sleep and good nutrition all contribute to his performance as a driver.
The work of Neil and his fellow professional drivers is uniquely demanding. The drivers navigate miles of highway, in conditions that can be challenging, while keeping people who are travelling for surgery, cancer treatment, physiotherapy or any number of medical services, as comfortable as possible.
Take it from Neil and follow his tips to keep your passengers, yourself and others on the highway safe, “Human cargo is precious, it’s a delicate thing.”