by MARK DUBLIN
Around midnight Saturday January 23, a driver on Metro Route 124 was beaten unconscious by a passenger. She may have been too slow letting him off the back door. The driver is recovering. Several suspects have been arrested and charged. Local newspapers and TV covered the story. Accounts are online. The media knows the drill. And that’s just the problem. Situation normal.
Now, even on rough routes, passengers don’t attack drivers every shift. Any 7-11 clerk is in worse criminal danger, for lousier wages and coverage. What mostly injures transit drivers is their own work day. Knee joint damage. Carpal tunnel syndrome. Back injuries. Those “gold-plated” medical benefits are legitimate repair bills for a forty hour week driving a bus.
But on about a half dozen routes, it’s not only drivers who regularly face personal violence. Most transit assault victims are passengers, who pay fares and taxes for the system and get no compensation for abuse on board. For a transit system fighting for its political and budgetary life, its people’s safety is its own as well.
I never drove Highway 99- no trolleywire. But Route 7 in the mid 1980’s also featured regular situations needing police. So I have a few suggestions about what “we” – meaning everyone who operates, rides, or cares about transit- can do to give ourselves the civilized travel people pay for, after the jump.
If We’re The King County Executive:
We publicly endorse Operations Manager Jim O’Rourke’s actual door policy, permitting passengers to leave by all coach doors after 7pm, outside the Downtown Seattle Ride-Free Area. We add that drivers will use all doors in the tunnel for deboarding- which most already do.
The original front-door-only-after-7 rule was always bad operating policy. Angry passengers were literally forced into right-hook range of the driver just to get off the bus. Law-abiding passengers who already paid their fares had to walk sixty feet, including those with luggage. Buses were chronically late, making Link trains late in the tunnel as well.
But the rule itself originated with ATU Local 587 in response to a legitimate question: is there anything a driver can personally do to prevent the bus from becoming one more piece of an ugly and dangerous street scene? Forget door policy! The 124 driver was already, and with Metro’s permission, trying to comply with the passenger who hospitalized her.
The answer is: many things. But whatever uniform you wear, you don’t face down trouble without backup.
If We’re The King County Sheriff:
We swiftly shift transit police tactics from reactive to powerfully pro-active. Not police on every bus all the time-but a high probability of police among passengers likely to need their protection. Half a dozen routes account for most of the Sheriff’s transit work- whose drivers and passengers will be glad to have deputies join them aboard buses.
In my experience, the type of people who attacked the 124 driver- not drunk or mentally ill, but just vicious- aren’t afraid of legislation. Laws too lenient? That’s for another post. But the fact is that scores of young passengers have close associates who scare them more than the Walla Walla death chamber. Hardened, maybe-but being arrested on the bus spoils their whole night. Make that likely, and dozens of crime scenes will remain peaceful buses.
If We’re Sheriff’s Deputies Assigned to Transit:
We let our superiors know we want to start riding buses, and develop union work rules to make bus-riding duty a good assignment. Transit policing is really a neighborhood beat-cop job- though police bicycles in the aisle might make suspect escape a lot harder.
Seriously, it’s a lot to ask of an officer to take an unglamorous shift whose whole goal is to make trouble not happen. But boarding teams protect the very people who deserve it most: working people who can’t afford to drive. Or who drive buses at hours when they’d rather be home with their families. Officers on board will be appreciated – and their presence will improve the quality of ridership.
If We’re Transit Drivers:
We know the rules. But we radio people with the tools, training, and backup to enforce them. Nor do we ever “do nothing” about violence. A clear and accurate radio report on a crime in progress; a swift call to Control about brewing trouble; a good detailed incident report- these aren’t “nothing.” They protect police, and win court cases.
We consciously practice coach-handling, making every acceleration, turn, and stop smoother than the last. A comfortable ride shows a skilled, confident driver- who faces much less trouble than the opposite kind. We know our exact location every second of the run.
Weapons and Plexiglas shields? We have a huge, well-lighted machine; communications to summon police; and most of all, our own skill, experience and judgment. Not perfect, but better than anything out of a security gadget catalog.
We read Recording Secretary Brian Sherlock’s interview with Metro Operations Manager Jim O’Rourke on page 7 of this month’s union newsletter. And have our union hold Jim to his promise that Metro discipline won’t put any driver between a rule and their own personal safety. Case history bears him out- though a general work atmosphere that renders many drivers skeptical has to change.
If We’re Transit Management:
We treat transit drivers with the respect due co-workers whose office conditions we personally wouldn’t tolerate for five minutes. And we don’t exercise authority over them in a manner we forbid them to use on their passengers. Not every infraction deserves punishment for consistency’s sake. Not every customer complaint is valid. Good work deserves compliments from us, and we’re grateful for the quality and quantity we get.
Conflicting demands of budget and service now mean we’ll have to ask more from people than we can really pay them for. Right now a grain of voluntary cooperation is worth a bushel of compelled obedience. And drivers who know they’ve got the company’s confidence will have the self-confidence that wards off assaults upon them and their passengers.
If We’re Passengers:
Same as above- tripled. A month before I took the Route 7, a night driver was beaten nearly to death by his passengers. He owes his life to three women schoolteachers from the neighborhood coming home from a meeting, who dove into a mob of attackers and pulled him out with their bare hands. The Route 124 driver couldn’t reach her radio- but passengers called police on cell-phones. That, everybody, is what’s really meant by “Transit Security!”
Drivers are our employees too, and their contribution to our lives entitles them at least to respect, courtesy, and patience. Bad economy or not, one thing everybody can afford to give everybody else is a break.
Mark Dublin is a former Metro bus driver and was a vocal member of Amalgamated Transit Union 587.