Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Punching Bags to Olive Branches

Another driver attacked. I don't know the details, but that's irrelevant for what I'm about to state. Of course, the attack itself isn't irrelevant. But there have been so many the past few years as to make it a top priority for our agency and union to seriously address.

Our Standard Operating Procedures merely state "Do not respond physically when confronted with threatening, violent behavior or unstable customers unless it is absolutely necessary to defend yourself or a passenger and the degree of physical force is only that which is minimally necessary." This is pretty vague. We're taught to "stay in the seat", unless we need to protect ourselves. Some believe this means I'm to wait until Joe Jerkoff punches me before I can jump up and slam his fist up his rectum, or risk suspension. Of course, common sense dictates using calm, rational customer service techniques to avoid physical violence. An assistant manager once told me the rationale behind the "stay in the seat" rule is to avoid escalating a situation, and also to stay close to the radio, which is our biggest safety device. The trick is to know if and when you need to leave the seat. If we allow our anger to rule, we can make mistakes. Being calm in a tense situation is a tough thing to do, especially if one is scared. Some violators cannot be "talked down".

As I've said before, I don't want to be caged like a zoo animal, cutting me off from the majority of my customers. Sure, there is that fraction of freaks who make a habit of attacking us, but most people are respectful. To simply throw up a cage might be construed as insulting to those who enjoy friendly banter with their regular operators. I don't think this type of barrier can stop a bullet, or a knife wielded by an experienced combatant.

Other transit agencies around the country have opted to install cages around the driver's seat. Miami-Dade Transit in Florida has barriers on a small percentage of its buses, but I can't seem to find any statistics as to their overall effectiveness. The cost is approximately $1600-1900 per bus (From Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District Staff Report). Other means of "protecting" operators, as practiced by Alameda-Contra Costa (SF Bay/Oakland, CA area transit) include random yet frequent boarding of buses by sheriff's deputies or uniformed and plainclothes police officers, operator training in non-threatening customer service techniques, and public outreach. In addition, surveillance cameras are becoming more of a presence in an attempt to deter criminal activities on transit vehicles.

In my time as a driver, only once have any officers ridden my bus. In fact, the route they did ride was a neighborhood commuter run serving a quiet nest of professionals who never gave me any guff. I asked the officers why they chose that particular route and their response was, "it was just random". It seems not much thought has been put into ride-alongs. Since then, I've driven many more dangerous routes. Most have been without incident, but a few tested my customer service skills to the hilt. In fact, I've had to re-evaluate my approach to difficult customers. You see, I'm a dog of Irish descent. When someone growls at me, I have a tendency to bite. Normally, I'll give someone a warning... once. Then, they either leave my bus willingly, or else. (I won't say what "or else" means, but I've had to stop myself from "leaving the seat".)

After a difficult situation, I'll evaluate how I handled it. Luckily for me, I haven't been severely tested or attacked. However, I'm constantly thinking about possible scenarios, asking other drivers their "horror stories", and combing the web for information. It could save my life someday, if I'm prepared for the worst. Some are simply not able to adequately defend themselves against a sudden, unprovoked attack. Take our sister Pam for example: Line 4 Assault.

Portland's transit agency, named TriMet, is either woefully ignorant of what we face as operators, or they simply don't care. Having met our GM, who appears a decent man in person, I doubt he doesn't care. He just doesn't know how to. He's never driven a bus in service, so he has no firsthand experience or working knowledge of the situations we routinely face. When Pam was severely beaten last winter, nobody from our management showed up at the accused attacker's pre-trial hearing. Several union officers and about 25 drivers showed up to support our fellow operator. TriMet's initial response was the usual bluster about offering a reward for information leading to an arrest, but my feeling was echoed by others... do they actually care about our safety? If they can talk the talk, why don't they walk the walk with us, rather than bemoaning how we're a bunch of money-hungry whiners with "Cadillac benefits"?

In addition to the threat of being assaulted, this job takes its toll on our bodies. Maneuvering a 20-ton, 40-foot long bus through traffic is stressful in itself. I've touched on this many times, so to do so again is overkill. I found an interesting article which deals with the stresses operators face. Over time, these stresses take a heavy toll on the average operator.

Our morale suffers every time one of us is assaulted. Each time this happens, it feels like we've all been beaten, because it could happen to any of us. The public is largely ignorant of the problems regarding our safety. What if our union, in cooperation with TriMet and local law enforcement, began to educate the public? Explain that the Federal Transit Administration reports assaults on transit operators has increased 144% since 2008, and what penalties people face for this crime. In addition, punishment for assaults needs to be more harsh.

There is a disconnect between the union and the agency we work for, largely due to contentious contract negotiations the past few years. Now it appears we may have reached an agreement, the time has come for us to work together.

Community outreach is severely lacking in Portland where transit issues are concerned. Whenever there's a news article about something good about operators, you can count several negatives which offset the positive. One local newspaper, The Oregonian, has a nasty habit of over-using the "Cadillac benefits" phrase. Its reporters don't seem to have a clue what we face out there. We are more prone to work-related injury and health problems than an overwhelming majority of other professions. Issues concerning driver comfort and fatigue are being addressed, which is a positive note. But the disconnect between US and those we serve needs to be bridged.

Educating the public about how to ride transit is also needed. Public Service Announcements, with operators explaining basic rules and procedures, would be worth consideration. Giving transit operators a face, highlighting the deeds of decent people who work a tough job every day of the year, might bring about a more positive work environment and more pleasant ride for all. Other agencies around the country do this (see Riding a Bus in Burlington, or this interesting tutorial from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN). You'd think Portland, which boasts several options for transit, would do this on a regular basis. It's an opportunity for our union to promote the positive things we do daily for people who use transit. It might just give people a better idea of what we do, in addition to teaching them the basics. It could also help folks understand why buses can be late sometimes by explaining what goes on "in the seat". Perhaps then we wouldn't be vilified so often on Twitter and other web tools. Even the nicest rider is often ill-informed.

There will always be bad-asses out there who don't care about penalties. There are also good people who have come to the aid of an operator in trouble. Our supervisors are widely spread and it can take several minutes for them to arrive at the scene of a problem. While it is impossible to end all assaults, it is possible to work toward drastically reducing them.

Portlanders largely depend on TriMet. We take this city to work, and we get them there in terrible weather conditions and horrific traffic. Routinely avoiding dangers on the road, our operators are truly some of the best in the world. We were once considered the No. 1 transit agency in the country. Officials from transit agencies far and wide once marveled at our efficiency. Now most comments are negative. We've slipped to No. 10 or worse, depending on which reports you read.

While no transit agency can be perfect, we don't deserve being beaten up. Literally or figuratively. We're good people, we work hard, we care about our neighbors. The good deeds we do on a daily basis far outweigh the negative publicity we've endured. The fight must end, so the healing may begin. There are many operators with great ideas, who are supremely more intelligent than I am. There's a wealth of possibility to make transit better for both customers and operators.

Cages make people feel like animals, and they further restrict our movement. It's time we come together, think "outside the box", and regain our No. 1 standing.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. My experiences on public transport in Portland have been largely good, and the interplay between drivers and passengers reminds me of my time in Taiwan, where there is as often as not personal interplay between the two, a friendliness that does not exist in many cities in America. The idea of putting drivers in cages "for their own protection" (or, as is often the excuse trotted out in some places I've been, "for everyone's safety") seems a distinctly un-Portland idea.

    Keep em coming, Deacon.