Investigation Begun, Montgomery Pulls Bus Driver Photographed Holding Book

Screengrab of alleged reading incident from ABC 7 report.
Screengrab of alleged reading incident from ABC 7 report.
By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

As Metro's new zero-tolerance policy against operators using mobile devices on the job went into effect yesterday, Montgomery County officials said a Ride On bus driver photographed holding a book while driving is no longer operating buses, pending an investigation.

County officials will not publicly name the driver, but they say she won't drive buses while they look into what happened.

"We are going to aggressively pursue this in the strongest way possible and take the strongest appropriate action," county spokeswoman Esther Bowring said. "This is just unacceptable, if this is really what was happening."

With an increased emphasis on safety after the June 22 Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured 80, passengers seem increasingly conscious of the conduct of bus and train operators. And they are using their camera phones and YouTube to share what they see. Metro also has begun publicly urging riders who see operators breaking the rules to contact the agency, with as much detail about what they saw as possible, and officials promise to investigate.

The Montgomery investigation was prompted by a 34-year-old Silver Spring woman, who provided Channel 7 with photographs she said she took Friday night on Bus 38. The woman, who was not identified, told a correspondent for the station that the driver read for most of the roughly 20 minutes she rode the bus.

Metro had announced the stiffer penalty for using a mobile device Thursday after an earlier video surfaced of an operator texting while operating a train. Employees will now be terminated if caught using a mobile device while operating a Metro bus or train, even if it is their first offense.

Spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said yesterday that Metro continues a separate investigation into a video that appears to show an operator sleeping while running a train June 18. Officials identified the driver, Taubenkibel said, but he has been on vacation and hasn't been interviewed.

The cellphone of Jeanice McMillan, the operator of the striking train who died in the June 22 accident, was found in her knapsack after the collision, ruling it out as a contributing factor in the crash.

But texting drivers played key roles in two other high-profile incidents and have stoked concern. An operator for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston was indicted Wednesday after a trolley he was driving crashed into another while he allegedly was texting. And in Southern California, investigators said the driver involved in a train crash that killed 25 in September had sent a text message just before the collision.

Alison Cooper of Bethesda, who takes the Red Line to work almost daily, said she saw a train operator reading the newspaper comics in 2002. He stopped reading to open and close the doors at each station but then looked back down at his newspaper, she said. At the time, Metro officials said they could not discipline the operator because the information about where and when it happened was not specific.

"I'm assuming these days that everyone's hyperalert," Cooper said. "Now I'm savvier. I would take note of the train number."

All area public transit agencies have rules against the use of mobile devices, but punishments for violating the policies differ. The Maryland Transit Administration also said last week that it would immediately implement a zero-tolerance policy for operators caught using mobile communications devices while driving a vehicle.

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