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."
Maneuvering a Metrobus in city traffic is no easy assignment. Drivers must steer their 40-foot behemoths through an urban obstacle course of distracted drivers, oblivious pedestrians and icy roadways. Cars pull out with no warning. Pedestrians stream through intersections, walking inches from buses' wheels. The job itself seems to demand an impossible set of contradictions: courteousness but little talking, promptness but no speeding.
Many riders said they thought operators were doing the best they could under difficult circumstances.
"Pedestrians cross against the light all the time," said Joaquin Miguel, a cook who lives in the District and rides the 70 line along Georgia Avenue NW. "They don't pay attention."
Jack Requa, Metro's bus chief, said there is no excuse for drivers who speed, run red lights or talk on cellphones. Those drivers will face immediate discipline, he said. At the same time, he said, heavy traffic might cause buses to block intersections even though they entered them legally. Congested streets also make it difficult to merge back into traffic from bus stops. "If you're totally 100 percent polite, you may never move," he said.
Jackie Jeter, president of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 689, which represents about 7,000 of Metro's 10,000 employees, said passengers have tried to intimidate operators by snapping their photos with cellphones. In a few cases, she said, riders have accused operators of being murderers.
"These accidents occur, and every operator would give anything for it not to happen," she told reporters last week.
Federal transit officials say that, nationwide, the number of bus accidents that result in pedestrian deaths each year is relatively small.
For the three fiscal years that ended June 30, 2006, Metrobus had five pedestrian fatalities.
The New York City transit system, where buses travel three times as many miles a year as Metrobuses, had one pedestrian fatality in that time frame. The Los Angeles Metro bus system, which is about twice the size of Metrobus, had seven fatalities in that period, according to federal officials.
Drivers are not always at fault when pedestrians are killed by buses. For instance, a man was killed in an early-morning collision in May when he walked into the path of a bus heading south on Indian Head Highway in Charles County. In the three accidents that have happened this year, one operator is on paid leave pending the outcome of a District police investigation, another has been terminated, and a third has been charged with two counts of negligent homicide.
Metro's bus system, which includes 1,499 vehicles and about 2,300 drivers, has long been overshadowed by the celebrated subway, which carries tourists and professionals and draws congressional attention.
Officials have made significant improvements by buying new buses and installing SmarTrip fareboxes and devices to pinpoint bus locations. But service remains troubled by outdated operations, underinvestment and an unresponsive bureaucracy, industry experts have said.
Another problem is the relative inexperience of drivers. Industry experts say a bus driver needs three years of driving to become fully seasoned. At Metro, because of a high number of recent retirees, 52 percent of operators have less than three years experience. As recently as 1998, 10 percent of Metrobus drivers would have fit that description; by 2000, the number had risen to one-third.
Metro practice also encourages the most experienced drivers to work on the least-used routes by allowing operators with the most seniority to have first choice in choosing where and when they drive. In many cases, they do not pick the highest-ridership lines, such as those along major arteries in the District or ones that travel through higher crime areas. As a result, less-experienced drivers can end up operating routes with the biggest challenges.
Of the three recent fatal incidents, two drivers had less than two years' experience.
In his memo, Catoe urged bus operators to focus on the basics and safety, promised extra supervisors and training and said schedules would be adjusted, if necessary, even if that delays service. He also has ordered radar guns so street supervisors can keep a closer eye on speeding.
Metrobus has 72 supervisors assigned to the streets to monitor schedules and safety, but Catoe said the system needs at least double that number. During the day-long tour, only one supervisor, posted at the site of one of the recent collisions, was spotted.
Catoe also wants to get rid of a policy that requires all drivers to start as part-timers, a rule originally designed to cut costs but one that officials have criticized. "We are not attracting a broad enough base of applicants because of that requirement," Catoe said.
Starting salaries for drivers are about $15 an hour.
Discipline is also a concern, Catoe said. Bus operators with more than three preventable accidents within a year's time are automatically fired. Metro considers an accident preventable if the operator failed to do everything possible to avoid the collision.
But operators have complained about favoritism, and Catoe said his discussions with managers and operators lead him to believe that enforcement is inconsistent. "We should have a process that has standards for termination due to accidents and standards for terminations not related to accidents," he said.
Metro has no computerized way to review operators' driving records to spotlight potential safety issues, nor is there sufficient attention given to tracking Metrobus accident patterns to spot trends, Catoe added.
Metro officials have known the dangers of the intersection at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where Sally Dean McGhee and Martha Stringer Schoenborn were struck by a Metrobus on Feb. 14. That accident was the eighth in two years at that intersection, but previous discussions between city and Metro officials went nowhere.
Two days after that accident, District transportation officials installed three new signs on traffic lights for vehicles heading northbound on Seventh Street. "Turning traffic must yield to pedestrians," the black-and-white signs say. City officials are also considering a left-turn arrow for vehicles turning onto westbound Pennsylvania Avenue, where the two women were killed as they walked in the crosswalk.