Friday, July 29, 2011

Washington Metro Bus Cameras Lead to 20 Firings and 222 Suspensions of Drivers

Drivers nailed for talking on cell phones, running red lights
Metro has fired 20 bus drivers in the past five months after new cameras filmed them using cell phones while behind the wheel.

The Metrobus cameras have caught bus drivers misbehaving 1,173 times in that period, prompting 222 suspensions for various infractions as well as the 20 firings.

Aimed at the driver's seat, the cameras are intended to help train Metro's bus operators how to better navigate the region's traffic-filled streets. But they also are catching drivers speeding, driving without seat belts and chatting on forbidden cell phones. The most common violation has been running red lights.

From Feb. 28 through July 22, Metro has ...

• Taken 1,173 disciplinary actions against Metrobus drivers, 222 of which were suspensions.
• Fired 20 drivers for using cell phones.

The $3 million addition of the cameras in the fall has even caused the agency to take the blame more often for bus crashes. Previously about 35 percent of all Metrobus accidents were deemed "preventable," the agency's way of saying the driver was at least partly to blame for the crash, Metro Assistant General Manager of Bus Service Jack Requa said. Since the cameras were added, the rate has crept up to 40 percent because the agency is seeing things it couldn't before. Metro says drivers could have prevented 351 of the 883 crashes that occurred March through June.

Not all are happy about the repercussions of the new technology, including Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 that represents most of the agency's more than 2,400 bus operators.

"It's amazing. When they convinced us to accept the cameras, they lied," she said. "They said it was a training tool."

The cameras constantly film the drivers yet preserve the recordings only when the vehicle makes an unusual move, such as braking too hard, accelerating too quickly or hitting something. The cameras capture the eight seconds before the event that triggers it, then four seconds after, Requa said.

Similar cameras have been used on MetroAccess vehicles for several years. Those have caught 87 MetroAccess operators falling asleep while driving in the past three years, as The Washington Examiner reported in June.

Metro finished installing the cameras on all Metrobuses in November. Officials gave drivers an amnesty period through February before beginning any disciplinary action.

Some drivers tried to turn the cameras away at first, Requa said. But that activated them and caught them in the act.

Since the discipline began, the cameras have been triggered about 5,000 times, according to Requa. But about 80 percent of the time, the driver wasn't doing anything wrong -- and sometimes was doing something right.

Requa said one driver was captured on camera swerving the bus, sending some riders flying. But the driver had been trying to dodge a 4-year-old child who ran across four lanes of traffic to get from one parent to another. The child was not hurt and the driver was praised for doing the right thing.

Still, with 1,173 disciplinary actions made from those images, that means nearly half of all drivers would have been disciplined if every driver had received just one violation in five months. Some drivers are repeat offenders, though.

Drivers also got caught through other means. The agency suspended drivers 548 times and fired 33 drivers for offenses not caught on video during the same period, according to agency statistics. But the cameras have increased the numbers.

"The majority of the operators do not come back for the same thing," Requa said. "We believe their driving habits are getting better."

The cameras are being activated less often, he said, a sign that the coaching provided by the images appears to be helping.

Read more at the Washington Examiner: