Metro bus drivers concerned about their safety

Some bus operators at Metro said they are worried management is not paying attention to their concerns about driver safety and want more transit police officers on buses.

An official with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents more than 10,000 Metro employees, said early Wednesday that some operators may refuse to drive Thursday.

However, Jackie Jeter, the union’s president, said, “We are not going to do a work stoppage.”

Metro reported in February that a third of aggravated assaults reported in the transit system involved bus drivers, some of whom confronted passengers who refused to pay fares.

At a town-hall meeting Monday, bus drivers said they are worried about their safety after three incidents in the last two weeks where operators were attacked on their routes along Minnesota Avenue SE, the H Street corridor NE and near the Capitol Heights station. Two of the drivers were treated at area hospitals and later released, union leaders said.

Bus drivers have complained about surveillance cameras on buses that are sometimes broken or missing and radios that don’t work.

Metro has “more than a dozen” transit police officers of its roughly 450-member force assigned to buses, according to Dan Stessel, Metro’s spokesman. But drivers say that’s not enough to protect Metro’s fleet of about 1,500 buses and 2,400 drivers.

“If you can’t provide police protection, at least you can give people a radio so they can call for help,” Jeter said.

Metro said it plans to “install or replace” cameras on buses and that it believes that 98 percent of its radios are okay, according to Jack Requa, the assistant general manager of bus services.

Anthony Garland, Local 689’s recording secretary and safety officer, said Metro’s management is quick to dispatch transit officers when there’s an incident in the rail system but not when attacks happen on buses.

Stessel said the police “staffing varies on bus and rail depending on threat levels and resources.” He said Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn and his deputies are “looking to increase patrols on buses to address some of these concerns” and have “opened a dialogue with the union to get drivers’ requests of where they want to see officers deployed.” Metro is also considering installing plexiglass shields to protect its drivers, Stessel said.

Drivers at Metro’s Northern Division, which is located at 14th and Buchanan streets NW, said Wednesday morning that superintendents and managers at the garage where roughly 150 buses depart each day were “ordered to leave” before the drivers had a chance to check safety equipment, according to Gerry Garnett, assistant business agent of Local 689.

Garnett said four or five supervisors at the Northern Division were instructed Wednesday morning to write violations for drivers who refused to leave the lot. The drivers were running late, but Garrett said they had not finished performing safety checks on equipment, which include radios and security cameras. Some of the drivers at the division left without having a chance to do the safety checks because “they were afraid they’d be fired or suspended,” Garnett said.

“Metro doesn’t care about operator safety,” Garnett said. “They’re preaching safety to the public, but in reality, when it comes to buses, they don’t spend the time or resources to protect operators.”

Garnett said some drivers might refuse to drive on Thursday, though it would not be an official union action.

After Wednesday morning’s incident, Requa met with Jeter and bus managers to discuss their concerns.

“They want assurances they’re safe,” Requa said.

According to Jeter, bus drivers will ask for another vehicle if they feel the one they’re given is unsafe.

“If they refuse to give us another bus, then they have to take responsibility for having equipment that does not work,” she said.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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