David Webster is no ordinary bus driver. When he’s not getting his passengers safely to their Lewiston-Auburn destinations as a driver for Western Maine Transportation Services, Webster is solidifying his reputation as an award-winning wheelman of national fame.

In early May, he beat out 29 other transit bus and van drivers to win his seventh — yes, seventh — straight Maine Transit Association/MaineDOT Transit Bus Roadeo. Later in May he went to Long Beach, Calif., and took fifth place against the nation’s best bus drivers, in the Community Transportation Association of America’s 21st National Community Transportation Roadeo. Yes, Roadeo. Safety can be fun.

In seven trips to the nationals, he’s taken home four trophies for placing fifth or higher, and took the national title in 2006. Climb aboard!

The competition tests a driver’s knowledge in a written test as well as his or her ability in a series of driving tests that has them weaving their buses and vans through cone-clogged obstacle courses under time pressure.

We talked to David right after returning from Long Beach. He loves his job and spoke freely about what it’s like to drive a bus these days and to compete at the highest levels. Excerpts from the interview are below.

Name: David Webster

Age: 52

Living in: Wales

How long have you been driving a bus? “Nineteen years for Western Maine Transportation Services. I drove a school bus for Auburn for a couple years before that.”

What’s your secret for doing so well in competitions? “Well, I don’t get nervous. That’s what undermines a lot of people.”

Do you mean there’s no skill involved in moving around those big buses? “Well, I would hope so,” he said, with a laugh. He explained that the competitions generally involve a driving test that includes six skill areas and a 100-question test. And there can be a wheel chair tie-down competition for the tie-breaker, so there is definitely skill involved.

Are the competitions dangerous? “Oh no. It’s always at slow speed. … Nothing where people are running and screaming for their lives.”

What do you like most about driving a bus? “It’s being out and about on the roads. Not stuck inside. … And I like my clients … it’s like a family. … I can’t picture myself doing anything else.”

What’s the biggest challenge to doing your job? “The other vehicles on the road. Inattentive drivers — the people with the cell phone glued to their ear,” he said, mentioning he sees people run red lights, get in accidents and in general make bad driving decisions because they are on their cell phones.

You must enjoy the competition. Is it cutthroat? “I love it. You get to see the drivers from all over the state and then from across the country. It’s a friendly competition. … But once you get to the national competition you don’t tell your secrets.”

So you have other secrets? “I like to think so,” he said, explaining that his trophy-winning efforts include finding visual reference points to help him navigate the cones and determine when to pivot the bus, and handling the other challenges during the driving phase.

How did you get into professional driving? “I’ve always loved driving ever since I got my license in high school. I was kind of the designated driver who would take friends places,” he said. He explained that he worked in a mill after he got out of school, for about 10 years, and although he liked the job, he didn’t like being inside all the time. So he took the test to get his license to drive a bus. Driving a school bus was good, but the school-year schedule left him with weeks of having no income, so he applied to WMTS for a full-time job.

What’s your favorite thing about your job: “My riders. All my riders are great people.”

Word on the street is that the course this year in California was tighter than normal, favoring vans and making it a greater challenge for bus drivers. Are you thinking that the van drivers lubed up the judges at the Ramada bar before the competition or do you have some other explanation? “Ha! I’m not going to point any fingers. … I think it was a fair competition. It’s just the way the cards fell. … I’m very happy with fifth place.”

What would you rather be driving? “I’ve got an old ’57 (Chevy) Nomad that I’d love to drive,” he said. The car is similar to one he drove years ago. He’s hoping to restore it, and said his 15-year-old son is very eager to help out. “Right now it’s a basket case sitting in my barn,” he said.

Have you got a timetable for getting it on the road? “Before I die, I hope,” he said with a laugh.

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