SafeRides driver strives to forge personal connections on the job

At 12:30 on a Friday night, the southwest route SafeRides bus is filled with eight students who giggle and joke with each other on their way home from a night out. The bus stops for two pedestrians crossing the street, and everyone on board gasps collectively as the pair trip over their own feet and fall onto the grass together. After opening the door and calling out to make sure they’re alright, the driver continues with the route and comments, “Pretty sure they’ve had a little too much fun tonight.”

Keeping the kids on the bus laughing is how Lin Jayne makes a trip on her SafeRides van interesting.

“I have so much fun,” she chuckles as she drops another passenger off in front of an apartment building. “For me, there just isn’t anything better than being on this campus with these kids.”

Jayne believes that personal interaction is really what makes SafeRides such an excellent service for University students. She started working for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (CUMTD) in Oct. 2005, driving buses on the silver route, and switched to driving for SafeRides about three years ago.

“It’s more interesting. You get to know the kids on a more personal level, so that you get more individual personalities. It’s not just a bunch of kids on a big bus,” she said.

SafeRides began running through the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District in 1999, then called NiteRides. Before CUMTD took it over, however, the University had a service called Women’s Wheels, in which rides were available only to female students and buses were operated exclusively by women, according to Jan Kijowski, marketing director for CUMTD. Now open to both genders, SafeRides promotes the goal of getting students across campus in a protected way.

The SafeRides service runs every night, shuttling an average of 75 students per night in each of its three vans, according to Jayne. She confides that her personal record for number of students on her route in one night is 141, an average of one drop-off every three minutes. Her record for number of kids on the bus at the same time is 19.

“We were having so much fun,” Jayne laughed when revealing that number. “No one wanted to get left behind.”

Every night that she works, Jayne makes the half-hour commute to get to campus before climbing into the driver’s seat of the SafeRides van. Throughout the night, she describes herself as taking on a mother role to students multiple times, referring to herself as a “mean mom,” “loving mom,” and “paranoid mom.” Every time she drops a student off, she waits and watches to make sure they enter their building before shifting the van back into drive.

“I just can’t help but worry,” she explains. “I’m just doing the best I can.”

The concern for student safety is something that is not only important to Jayne, but also to the rest of the CUMTD network. She described how the drivers of the regular buses will call SafeRides drivers to alert them about students who seem to need some help getting home. Once, after a girl refused a ride from a SafeRides driver and ran off, multiple bus drivers even worked together to search the campus and ensure that the girl made it home safely.

Jayne has also called the non-emergency police in cases where she believes a student needs help, but they refuse to accept it from her. When she sees students who could use her help getting home, she will often give them a ‘courtesy pickup,’ meaning that even though they do not follow protocol by calling SafeRides and requesting to be picked up, she will take them in anyway.

While difficult incidents, belligerent students and troublemakers come across the SafeRides drivers’ paths occasionally, Jayne said that the positive aspects of her job greatly outweigh those negatives.

“It’s so much fun. I just love these kids to death,” Jayne says. “And this is a great system for the kids.”

Denise Graham, graduate student in Labor and Employment Relations, agreed that it is a good system for getting home. She lives off campus and decided to try out SafeRides with a friend soon after learning about it.

“Where I live is not the safest place to walk late at night, and I had been doing that quite a bit,” Graham said.

While she added that the bus would take just as long as SafeRides, she prefers to call and be dropped off right on her doorstep.

While Graham is talking, Jayne calls to her from the front of the bus, “Bring me a hat just like yours, honey, I love it.”

Many students on the bus say that the connection they feel with the driver is what makes them want to continue using SafeRides. While on the Friday night route, two girls are crossing the street in front of the bus when they notice Jayne driving. They immediately run up to the bus, Jayne opens the window, and the girls lean through it to hug her and exclaim how much they love her.

After the girls walk away and the bus starts rolling again, Jayne comments, “They’re really good girls.”

Even though it turns out that the girls did not remember this incident the next day, she is still touched by their affection toward her. For Jayne, those relationships are what’s most rewarding about her job.

“I’ve watched kids come in as freshman and graduate. I’ve watched them stick around and go to grad school, and then watched them work even harder than they did as (undergraduate) students,” Jayne said. “You just can’t help but know these kids. There’s so many kids working hard that stand out… (they) are wonderful and exciting and they all have so much potential, and over the years I’ve come to find out that SafeRides is the best way for me to get to know them.”