Steward of safety: Clyde Hoffman retires as state patrol bus inspector

WORTHINGTON -- When Clyde Hoffman started his job as a vehicle inspector with the Minnesota State Patrol, carbon paper was a valuable commodity because all the reports had to be submitted in triplicate.

Clyde Hoffman stands by his official commercial vehicle enforcement vehicle. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON -- When Clyde Hoffman started his job as a vehicle inspector with the Minnesota State Patrol, carbon paper was a valuable commodity because all the reports had to be submitted in triplicate.

"Good carbon paper was like gold," he recalled with a laugh. "We actually had supplies hidden. Then we sent to self-carbonization -- what an upgrade! -- and then gradually into computers."

Hoffman was hired by MSP in February of 1984, and he's now logging his last hours as he prepares for retirement. A native of Wilmont, Hoffman didn't set out to become an enforcement officer of any type.

"I worked for the Department of Agriculture, USDA, for 10 years, and then I got this job," Hoffman said. "This was a fluke thing. I used to help some people drive truck, and this guy was talking about the state patrol having some openings. They were building the scale out here at that time, and in 1984 the state patrol got into commercial vehicle inspection, and they were hiring people for that. I was talking to this other guy who was going to apply, and he said I should do it, too. But I didn't know if I should, because my dad drove truck, my brother drove truck, we had a family history of driving truck, and I figured they were going to banish me from the family. But I went in and did it, took the test, and the next thing you know I'm going to school to become a vehicle inspector."

Initially, Hoffman was assigned to the commercial vehicle scale that is a few miles east of Worthington on Interstate 90.


"I started out at the scale for six years," he said. "We had 92 people (in commercial vehicle enforcement) when I started in the truck division, now we're down to 48 inspectors. The scale was an amazing place when I first started out there, and people weren't used to it. We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week on a rotating shift. You'd be out there in January on a Saturday night at 3 in the morning with the howling wind and the snow and think, 'What did I do to deserve this?'"

After putting in his time at the scale, Hoffman moved into the bus inspector post, what MSP calls "pupil transportation safety."

"We've got our own agenda and own people," he explained. "There are 14 of us posted out here in the state, and then we've got three who roam the whole state. It's kind of a unique job. One of the little known facts about school buses is that they are one of the safest modes of transportation there is. As far as fatality or injury, they are on the lowest end of the spectrum, due to the way they are built."

There has been public debate about installing seatbelts in school buses, but Hoffman contends school buses are actually safer without them.

"Buses are compartmentalized, with the high-back seats and everything padded," he described. "If you put a small child in there with a lap belt, and you get into an accident, your head is going to connect with the seat in front of you and snap your neck. Without a belt, the padded seat is going to take the brunt of the absorption with your abdomen. School buses also have tempered glass windows, which will shatter but not break into a million little pieces."

Hoffman's job takes him to communities throughout a good chunk of the state.

"I go through this whole southwest corner, east as far as Blue Earth, as far north as Norwood-Young America, over to Willmar," he said. "There are 14,000 school buses in the state of Minnesota, and I don't have the exact figures with me, but the number of students on those buses is tremendous, hundreds of thousands a day. That's a lot of responsibility.

"My partner, Dean Streff, and I, we've been working this area together for more than 20 years, and we have another team that works out of the northwest, in the Thief River Falls area, another one out of Duluth, the Twin Cities has two teams, Rochester has a team, St. Cloud has a team," Hoffman continued. "If there's a crash involving a bus, we take care of the post-crash inspections; go after the fact to see what kind of damage happened to the bus, what kind of injuries, that kind of thing."


But the biggest part of the job is routine bus inspections, which includes inspections on buses that transport students and commercial motorcoaches.

"By law, the school buses have to be inspected once a year by the state patrol," Hoffman explained. "Those are announced inspections, so we let the people know so they can have all the equipment there. Then we go to the site and do the inspection. We also allow so many days a month to do random inspections, a spot-check kind of thing. We'll observe buses as they're coming in to the school and dropping kids off, make sure the driver has his seatbelt on, and then when the kids are off, we do an all-around inspection. We'll check the driver's license, make sure the physical qualifications are up to date. Depending on what I find, if I find something obvious, then I'll do a full inspection on the bus."

The inspections are based on a point system, which each deficiency getting a point.

"They're allowed 25 points, then the bus is put out of service," Hoffman said. "It's a pretty fair and equitable system, because if we're finding a bunch of small stuff, it's an indicator that the maintenance isn't good. We check out the tires, the brakes, steering, exhaust, look for sharp objects in the interior. We are pretty fussy on the inside of the bus. We want to keep as much padding as we can on the seats, and over time foam will break down. We want to make sure there are no torn seats -- that's where a lot of the foam disappears, because kids see a hole and they like to see what's inside of it.

"When we inspect a bus for an annual inspection, we expect it to be 100 percent," he added. "They know we're coming, so there's no reason why it shouldn't."

After more than two decades as a bus inspector, Hoffman has gotten very familiar with the region's bus companies and the people who run them.

"A lot of the carriers are family owned, and I've seen a lot of them pass to the next generation," he said. "You get to know the people. They know what to expect from me, and I know what to expect from them. A working relationship has developed, and there are enough safeguards in the system that I can't show any favoritism, especially now with the computers."

Working with a computer on a daily basis has kept Hoffman current on technology. He's especially grateful to not have to deal with carbon paper anymore.


"When we first got laptops -- it was actually more of a word processor than anything -- it evolved to where at the end of the day, we'd take our laptops into our house, plug them into the phone lines and upload (the reports) to St. Paul that way. It would take 15 to 20 minutes to transmit. Now we do it with an air card. We can transmit our inspections right away, can upload them as soon as the inspection is done. It goes to St. Paul, then to Washington, D.C., to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They keep track of everything there as far as the carriers, the safety ratings and the defects we find on the buses."

Throughout his tenure with the state patrol, Hoffman has tried to conduct his job with professionalism and always keep in mind that he's ensuring the safety of thousands of children who ride a bus every day.

"I've never had too many issues, although of course there have been some confrontations," he reflected. "But it's all about how you approach them. When I started, somebody told me that you have to learn how to step on people's toes but not mess up the shine on their shoes, and that's always been my theory."

In just a few days, Hoffman won't have to don his state patrol garb anymore or worry about stepping on anyone's toes -- except maybe those of his wife, MaryAnn. The Hoffmans have two sons, Joel, a registered nurse in Moorhead, and David, who followed in his dad's law enforcement footsteps with the Worthington Police Department. They have one granddaughter, Jenna, 8.

Except some traveling and spending more time with his granddaughter, Hoffman has no big plans for filling his retirement hours.

"I kid MaryAnn about how we're going to be together all the time, and she gets this look like a deer in the headlights," said Hoffman. "But it will be nice, and we'll get more time to do some traveling. I guess I'll be catching up on all the things that should have been done over the years.

"I made a lot of acquaintances, most of them good, and all the changes in technology that we've gone through the years has helped me be able to keep up with it and not stagnate, which I hope I don't do in retirement," Hoffman said about his career.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

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