Passengers beware

Monday, June 14, 2010

AN INDEPENDENT arbitrator has overruled Metro and ordered the reinstatement of a pair of bus drivers whose professional records do not inspire confidence. One of the drivers, Ronald Taylor, was behind the wheel of a bus that struck a taxi in 2008, killing a father of two. The other driver, Shawn Brim, left his seat in mid-route on Feb. 28 last year and, in full view of his passengers, slugged in the face an off-duty police officer who was dressed as McGruff the Crime Dog, thinking it would be funny. Both men were fired.

In overturning their dismissals, the arbitrator, David Vaughn, was apparently satisfied that each man has the skills and temperament to continue driving buses. Mr. Vaughn is a veteran arbitrator with long experience in disputes involving Metro and its employees. He serves at the pleasure of both Metro and its main workers union, which means that both sides have viewed him as generally evenhanded in the past. In light of these cases, though, passengers could be excused if they feel less sanguine.

Mr. Taylor was dismissed shortly after his accident based partly on the account of an eyewitness who said the bus had run a red light. In reviewing the evidence at arbitration, Mr. Vaughn seems not to have found that testimony convincing. But the fact remains that a man was killed, and if there was even a glimmer of doubt that the driver was at fault, Mr. Vaughn could have reached a more nuanced decision. For instance, he might have ordered Mr. Taylor reinstated in an office job at Metro rather than behind the wheel of a bus. (As it turns out, Metro has persuaded Mr. Taylor to change jobs.)

The case of Mr. Brim, who punched McGruff, is almost as disturbing. Here is an instance where there is no dispute that the driver exercised atrocious judgment -- the driver himself admitted to the assault, though insisting he meant no harm by it. Yet despite violating Metro's clear policy against workplace violence, Mr. Brim will suffer no more serious punishment than the loss of one month's pay; he is expected to be back at the wheel of a Metrobus this week. (Note to passengers: Do not don get-ups that might provoke the driver!)

Bus drivers earn $55,000 to $65,000 a year. They have sole control of vehicles that cost up to half a million dollars and convey 50 or 60 passengers at capacity. The job is stressful; it demands maturity, sound judgment, steady nerves and consistent caution. In these instances, it's far from clear that the drivers demonstrated those qualities.

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