Four shocking passages in The Oregonian’s investigation of TriMet drivers who fall asleep at the wheel

bus photoThe Oregonian’s Joe Rose demonstrates the importance of strong daily newspapers today with an eight-month investigation into outrageous driver overtime practices at TriMet that a Harvard expert calls "categorically unsafe."

"The budget-battered agency allows operators to manipulate work rules to log as many as 22 hours in a 24-hour period," Rose reports.

The result, Rose shows through numerous anecdotes, is drivers who fall asleep behind the wheel.

You really have to read Rose’s whole piece to get a full sense of the scale of this problem, but I’ve added emphasis to four particularly startling passages:

  • "Eight drivers made more than $100,000 in 2011, the last full calendar year that payroll records are available. Of those, TriMet said only four have been involved in crashes in recent months."
  • "TriMet records show that a cab driver stuck behind the bus for "two to three light signals" also called to report that the No. 8′s operator had dozed off. …
    "The driver wasn’t disciplined. It’s unclear why. When confronted with the allegations and subjected to the obligatory fit-for-duty checks, drivers often tell supervisors that they’re merely closing their eyes to rest them at stops and signals.
    "‘We do not have a policy against closing one’s eyes,’ Lomax said."
  • "About 11 a.m., the light at Tualatin Valley Highway turned red. The bus stopped, but only briefly. People on board felt the 16-ton vehicle roll forward, picking up velocity as it headed into the highway’s metal maelstrom of crisscross traffic. It nearly collided with a car.
    "The 57′s driver had nodded off at the light, a rider reported 20 minutes later. Apparently feeling the bus moving, the driver jerked awake, put it into reverse and backed up. ‘Caller said that he feared for his life all the way,’ a TriMet dispatcher wrote in the report."
  • "Aug. 10, 2012: After a bus plowed into a Beaverton railroad crossing on Southwest Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, jamming up morning traffic for hours, a TriMet investigator told police the driver likely fell asleep. The driver said he choked on ‘a piece of hair,’ causing him to briefly pass out."

The article also does a good job showing that this isn’t just an irresponsible thirst for overtime by a few drivers who may not accept their bodies’ limitations.This toll on transit riders and everyone else who shares the roads is caused by TriMet’s financial decision to operate without enough operators, which in turn is caused by the agency’s revenue constraints and labor costs:

"A long hiring freeze created a shortage of drivers at a transit agency that also struggles with a daily absenteeism rate of more than 10 percent. In effect, TriMet has chosen to pay out overtime rather than pay new employees what are among the most generous health care and retirement benefits in the transit industry.

"When station agents can’t fill scheduling holes, they’re forced to cancel buses without warning, leaving frustrated commuters waiting at stops. On July 23, for example, TriMet started the day by canceling 10 buses because it didn’t have enough operators to step in for those who called in sick.

"If you’ve got the seniority and the stamina, there’s almost always an overtime shift available."

"Exhaustion has become part of the culture," Steve Fung, an opinionated and respected recent retiree, tells Rose.

People on both sides of TriMet’s dispute with its union will use this headline to point fingers. Unless the union makes a quick concession to change the work rules that allow operators to choose these back-to-back shifts, expect TriMet managers to make this their first, second and third talking point in their case that the contract is too labor-friendly.

But this report is also a clear sign of an organization that, from top to bottom, sometimes simply operates with a lack of common sense. Kudos to the Oregonian, at least, for bringing some of that to the table.

Update: TriMet responds on its own blog without disputing the facts of the article. "We have a few bus operators who choose to work a lot of overtime … this is rare. … As we negotiate the next contract, we hope to work with the ATU to improve the hours of service policy and further strengthen our support of safe operations."

(Photo by Jamie Francis/The Oregonian.)

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