Metro Chief Vows Better Bus Safety

By Lena H. Sun and Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 25, 2007

Metro's new general manager is taking steps that amount to the most dramatic changes in bus operations in a generation, saying safety must be improved and public confidence regained after four pedestrians were recently struck and killed by buses.

John B. Catoe Jr., who took over Metro last month, detailed the measures last week in interviews with The Washington Post and sent a memo to all bus drivers stressing that "the cost of these tragedies . . . has been too high. We have to put an end to it now."

His words and actions came as a reporter rode some of Metrobus's busiest routes for a day and observed drivers speeding, running red lights, talking on cellphones and engaging in many other unsafe practices that some bus riders and pedestrians call typical.

Yesterday evening, a stroller carrying a small child was reportedly struck by a Metrobus in Southwest Washington. The 3-year-old was seen at a hospital and released, D.C. police said. The stroller, being pushed by the child's mother, was reportedly hit by the rear of the bus at Half and O streets about 5 p.m., but officials were sifting conflicting accounts, a Metro spokeswoman said.

It was the latest example of the difficulties of driving a bus through crowded, often chaotic, city streets. Speaking last week, Catoe said he would institute practices that are standard elsewhere to get a firmer grip on the behavior of Metro's drivers, more than half of whom have less than three years' experience.

He said he will begin to monitor drivers -- knowing when they are stopped for speeding, drunken driving and other violations while on duty -- by coordinating with the motor vehicle departments of Maryland, Virginia and the District. Although many transit agencies already do this, Metro supervisors have no way of knowing whether operators have broken the law unless drivers tell them or the violations are caught on police cameras.

Catoe said he also wants to significantly boost the number of street supervisors who oversee driver behavior and end the practice of requiring new operators to start on a part-time basis.

And Catoe, who has more than two decades of experience running major bus systems, plans to consolidate all bus operations under a single person. As it stands, the bus chief is responsible for service on a system that provides 443,000 passenger trips a day but has no control over hiring drivers or scheduling routes. Those duties are handled by different departments.

In his memo to drivers, Catoe warned that commuters were questioning their abilities, a perception he said wasn't accurate. But, he wrote, "we can be expected to be looked at closely and critically for quite some time."

Nonetheless, bad driver behavior persisted in plain view a day after the memo went out. Drivers went through red lights, blocked intersections and split their attention between watching traffic signals and talking on cellphones. On streets with 30 mph speed limits, some operators exceeded 40. Others blocked roads and burrowed their way into traffic by wielding their vehicles like giant wedges. Chatty drivers talked to passengers instead of watching the road.

"I'm watching for somebody to fall out of the sky in front of my bus," one driver on the H8 route told his riders, turning his head to face them as he rolled along.

"I'm going to take it easy, take it slow," another operator told her passengers. "I'll be getting an hour of overtime today."

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