Three Bus Drivers on ‘Speed’ (the Movie, Not the Drug)

‘If that jump was five feet, you’d have trouble, but 50 feet? Forget it.’

“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?”

This question, uttered by Dennis Hopper’s mad bomber, proved to be the perfect hook for one of the most iconic action thrillers of all time. 1994’s Speed had a simple enough premise —  if the bus slows down, it explodes, got it — so the filmmakers wisely laid out this device in every trailer and TV spot, teasing a movie that would be filled with action, car chases and explosions — which is what everyone wants in a good summer flick.

Fortunately, Speed also delivered on its promise. It was a tightly-paced roller coaster of a movie with memorable stars who are still big names today, which is why Speed holds up beautifully 26 years later as a great popcorn movie.

Well, except with maybe one demographic: bus drivers. If you recall, there are two actual bus drivers in Speed and neither is all that heroic — one dies at the beginning of the movie, when Dennis Hopper’s bomber blows up the first bus to get Keanu Reeves’ attention. Then there’s Sam, the driver on the main bus, who ends up getting shot about two minutes after Keanu jumps onboard.

After that, Sam is just a writhing victim until he’s transported off the bus, never to be seen again. Instead, Sandra Bullock takes over his job like an old pro, making it seem like anyone on a bus could suddenly pop up and drive the massive thing. Not only that, but she also manages to pull off some pretty extraordinary stunts behind that wheel. While most of us see Speed as a carefree action film, to a bus driver it might be downright insulting — but why speculate when we can just go ahead and ask three of them?

On Speed’s Portrayal of Bus Drivers

Dan Christensen, blogger and Portland, Oregon bus driver (15 years): I think the movie shows bus drivers in a pretty good light, actually. That first one is a bus driver on a break, and I like that the shop he visits is a place where they know him and they have his coffee ready for him — when you take the same break every day, they get to know you. Although, when he gets back into his bus, it’s like an 1980s-style explosion, so somehow he didn’t realize there were four 50-gallon-drums of kerosene in his bus, ready to blow up.

As for the other driver, he’s really personable and people know him by name, and everyone wants to work in a world where you know people by name.

Spencer Suckling, London Red Bus Driver (16 years): Bus drivers don’t get enough credit for their jobs. Bus driving is listed as a professional skill, and we go through intense training. There’s a lot involved, more than the public thinks, yet we’re treated as being “way down there,” which is very annoying. And I guess the movie seems to reflect that, as the bus drivers seem kind of expendable.

On Whether or Not a Passenger Could Suddenly Take Over

Christensen: Absolutely, a passenger could take over. When you first learn to drive a bus, there are only two real difficulties — how to turn without hitting anything, and learning to use the air brake, which is far more sensitive than a car brake and you have to work it with your foot differently. But I always tell new drivers, “You know 95 percent of bus driving already.”

Michael, Seattle bus driver: If they had a driver’s license, yes. I don’t think a random pedestrian could start the bus, because there’s several things you need to know for that, but if it was already in motion, I think so, especially if you’re just going down the freeway.

On How Often They Get Their Bus Up Over 50 MPH

Christensen: Let me tell you something about those old buses — they don’t go that fast. Modern buses have big, giant turbo diesel engines, but back then, 50 miles per hour would have been really pushing it. Even today, though, the buses I drive have a limiter on them, so they can’t go up over 55.

Suckling: I don’t get it up that high very often. Sometimes we have to run the buses offline from one station to another, and in those cases, I might get it to 60 or 70 miles per hour, but that’s on the highway and without passengers onboard.

Michael: Over 50? Pretty infrequently. The governor — or speed limiter — on newer buses is typically set at 62 miles an hour, sometimes 65. The fastest I’ve ever gone in a bus was just over 80. That was freaky, and I had to bypass a couple of safety systems to get there. I did this while I was deadheading back to base at 1 a.m., so there was no traffic. To do this, I had to floor it and get it up to 65, then I had to put it in neutral, which bypasses the governor, and I had to disable the regenerative braking. It was a downhill stretch of highway, so it kept rolling faster and faster. Over 75 miles per hour, though, I was actually afraid, and I worried that I couldn’t bring it back under control.

They all have data recorders, too, so had I gotten into an accident, they would have told me, “You put it in neutral, then you disabled the regenerative braking — how stupid were you?” 

The brakes did overheat a bit, but I managed to get the bus slow enough to take it back out of neutral and restore the regenerative braking so I got it back under control — and this was a 60-foot bendy bus!

On Whether or Not They Would Have Let Keanu on the Bus

Christensen: At first, when Keanu Reeves is on foot on the freeway, banging on the side of the bus, he could have pulled out his badge, but he never does. He only brings his badge out later, when he’s in the Jaguar, but on foot, he just looked like a crazy guy banging on the window on the highway, and you don’t let crazy on the bus. 

Michael: If I saw a badge, I’d be curious and I’d make an effort to communicate with him, but if a crazy guy on the highway was banging on the side of the bus without showing a badge, I’d have been on the radio with the control center, telling them that there’s a crazy guy out here on the highway. Later on, when he shows him the badge and Keanu Reeves is in the car, they’re communicating on the freeway, and there’s no way they could hear each other at that speed — I’ve tried.

Suckling: No. He didn’t show any kind of identification. What I would have done was slow the bus for safety reasons, then I would have used my emergency call button to say, “I’ve got a nutter outside my bus trying to get on in the middle of the highway.”

On Opening the Doors While the Bus Is In Motion

Christensen: You can’t nowadays, but back then, there were many buses where you could open the front door while driving. They even called that “the bus driver’s air conditioner” because many of those olds buses didn’t have air conditioning. As for the back doors, they were connected to the brakes, so there’s that part where he opens the rear doors to get the hostages out, you’d have to shove those doors open or break something to do that.

On the Multiple Car Crashes

Christensen: I don’t know if they could have hit all those cars and kept it up over 50, but I’ve seen videos where buses are hitting stuff and they just keep going. That’s a lot of force behind a bus, so they can be hard to stop.

Michael: There’s no way the bus could have continued after hitting all those cars. That bus would have been falling apart. Buses are cheap and stuff can just fall off of them, especially those panels on the sides and that chrome on the front, that would have been gone. I’ve taken a mirror off a bus — everyone knows someone who took a mirror off a bus — and they’re literally breakaway pieces. 

On Making that Turn

Michael: No. The wheels would have come off the rim.

Christensen: If that bus went up on one side, all the weight would have been on those wheels, which seems a bit much, but it’s not the most unbelievable thing in the movie.

On “The Jump”

Suckling: Even if you modified that bus with an engine from an aircraft or something like that, it still wouldn’t have made it across a 50-foot gap. That bus would have been dead weight and gone right down that hole. The moment is also very strange because when it jumps, it tilts upward, rather like a speedboat. I guess it’s purely for dramatic effect. There was clearly no consultation about whether or not it would actually make it.

Christensen: If that jump was five feet, you’d have trouble, but 50 feet? Forget it. Supposedly they’re going 70 miles per hour on that bus uphill — which is impossible — but, if you give them that, even that doesn’t add up. I actually did the arithmetic on this. So, they say in the movie that they’re going 70 miles an hour, which is about 100 feet per second. Now, they have to jump 50 feet, which means they would make that jump in half a second. But the question is, how far would that bus sink in half a second due to the force of gravity? The answer is four feet. 

Plus, it’s a ramp going up, which means the other end is going to be a couple of feet higher than where they jumped from. This means it would have smashed into the other side of the ramp, right into the windshield. 

Michael: Absolutely not. The jump couldn’t happen, not for a moment. Seattle has a lot of drawbridges, so I’ve seen security footage of cars making the attempt, and it never goes like in the movies. With a bus, here’s what would happen: As soon as the front wheels left the ground the bus would start pitching down, which would impart a twisting force over the bus, where they’d spiral down the gap from there.

But let’s be more generous and say it doesn’t pitch down as quickly. Let’s say the back wheels clear the panel. The back is where the engine is, so it’s much heavier — once those wheels leave the ground, that would have rotated the bus backwards, causing it to pitch up, which you kind of see in the movie when it jumps. Say that happens, the bus would have had its middle underside contact the far side panel, cracking the bus literally in half. 

Either way, everybody probably dies.