Monday, July 27, 2015

The Dangers of Operating

These days, it seems everyone gets pissed off. Passengers are upset their normal line and train didn't show up and they had to wait longer. Operators are verbally abused virtually every shift and are expected to drive regardless. Dispatchers are overwhelmed, cops are elsewhere when needed, road supervisors are on the other side of their district. So what does Ollie Operator have at his disposal to determine how to handle each situation as it occurs? Himself, and his wits.

This morning, I read about an operator whose breast was grabbed and twisted roughly by a passenger with autism. Here are the facts as stated by our operator:

  1. The operator had come to the end of her line, and noticed a group of developmentally disabled people with chaperones waiting for a different bus.
  2. As she stood up from the operator's seat, one of these "chaperoned individuals" jumped onboard and grabbed her breast. She fought him off, with the aid of three chaperones. When he finally let go of the operator, he moved to the back of the bus and sat down.
  3. The chaperones had to coax this individual to exit the bus.
  4. Operator immediately left the bus and contacted dispatch by telephone. She gave a description of what happened, at which time her attacker exited the bus.
  5. Operator requested Dispatch alert drivers of other lines as to what had happened, especially the operator of the bus her attacker intended to board.
  6. Dispatcher asked driver if she was "okay", to which she gave a reply she described as "flip"; it sounded laced with sarcasm, "yeah, as long as I keep telling myself he's autistic and not just some ass."
  7. No road supervisor responded by the time her break was over; police did not respond either.
  8. Operator continued her route after a break, and found out her garage's Station Agents had not been notified, nor was there an incident number assigned.
So let's start with the assault. This operator's breast was grabbed "roughly". From the sound of her account, the guy just wasn't going to let go without a fight. As this is a highly-sensitive area in normal conditions, and extremely painful when assaulted, I would imagine her self-defense was intensified due to pain and shock. The assault left her bruised, both physically and mentally. Yet it wasn't treated as an assault on an operator?

What if she had seriously injured her attacker in her natural defensive response? Had she broken his arm, would that constitute "reasonable force"? I mean come on, who hasn't been on the receiving end of a "titty twister"? As a male, meaning sans breasticles, it's painful enough, but for a woman... YEOW! So would she be arrested for assault for simply defending herself? When you're attacked, you don't have the luxury of determining just how much force is "reasonable". What if she had slammed his nose up into his brain, causing instant death? Would she be on trial for manslaughter? Would the media play up the fact the assailant was "special needs" and turn the operator into a villain? There is too much ambiguity where it comes to the term "reasonable defense", because a person is temporarily unable to gauge an appropriate response while under attack.

This attack left the operator, as a fellow union brother stated, in a "diminished capacity" to safely drive her vehicle. Without benefit of road supervisor to assess the situation, the operator wasn't truly qualified to determine her own ability to safely continue on the route. The human body's response to an attack is a biological "fight or flight" condition. The pulse and respiration increases, hormones are hyper-produced and the entire nervous system is amped-up to give muscles added strength, and the body's normal sense of equilibrium, or homeostasis, is temporarily abnormal. The mind is not tuned to produce rational thought at this moment; in fact, people are not "normal" for hours, days or even weeks afterward. The body is so primed to ward off an attacker, the energy this state consumes is enormous. Depending on the intensity of the body's reaction to fight or flight, hormone levels can remain imbalanced for several months after an incident. In the case of someone with a compromised cardiovascular system, the fight or flight condition could possibly trigger any number of catastrophic events, such as heart attack.

The correct thing to do here would be for the operator to refuse going back into service for at least one day, citing safety reasons. It is difficult enough to ignore the many slights, insults and verbal provocations we're subject to each shift. But when we're physically assaulted, it's time to take care of oneself, not worry about the transit agency's intolerant dependents.

No wonder our profession is deemed one of the most stressful, ranking up there with air traffic controllers, police and firefighters. When you consider how many times every day some operator has experienced a fight or flight response in his or her body, it is amazing we continue to operate buses in a safe and professional manner.

Besides our sister's attack, the other troubling aspect of this is her stating that her Station Agents weren't aware it had happened. The fact there was no incident number is disconcerting, considering we're instructed to report practically anything abnormal that occurs on our shift. Our dispatchers are very keen to what we go through "out there", as they have driven buses themselves. Their job is difficult at the least, managing operators, supervisors, mechanic calls and extra service operators. They are often under-staffed during peak hours. They have enormous responsibilities, and they usually do an outstanding job under extreme circumstances. Since we haven't heard about this incident from their point of view, I refuse to lay blame at their feet. Even if it was an error on their part, we have to remember human nature is far from perfect and we need to move forward, preferably as one.

There are any number of explanations we're not privy to, and it is a common response for us to want to blame dispatch, management, training, union or whomever when we believe something is wrong. We feel isolated "out there", and we want to protect our brothers and sisters. However, operators are but one of the lug nuts on the bus; we're part of a team. Our best response is to educate one another, increase solidarity and preach consistency.

So, God forbid, if one of my brothers or sisters who reads this is assaulted on the job, please do the following.

  1. Notify Dispatch immediately, and request a road supervisor and police response. 
  2. Call your union rep as soon as possible and ask for advice and assistance. Ask the rep to contact all who should be aware of your situation, including the Station Agents at your garage.
  3. Write down what happened to you as soon as it is safe to do so. We tend to forget important details if we wait too long.
  4. File charges against your assailant; we cannot expect the public to behave if we "just let it slide". Remember, if we do anything wrong, we're almost certainly called on the carpet. Why should we always be "the nice guy"? For your sake as well as for your fellow operators, insist your assailant be held responsible for his/her actions.
  5. Refuse to continue in service. Your body, mind and soul have suffered grievous harm, and you need time to recover. If you decide to drive again, you're setting yourself up to fail because your mind won't be concentrating on safety, just the events you just experienced.
  6. Stand. Your. Ground. Don't be bullied into doing something you shouldn't have to.
  7. Take the time you believe necessary to heal before going back on duty. Your passengers and fellow operators need you to concentrate on the enormous task of driving safely, and you cannot do that if you're upset, injured, or in shock.
One of my beloved fellow operators was so terrified one night she reports "hiding behind a tree, running for my life, scared out of my mind" during her route, only to be disciplined later for parking her bus on the wrong track in the yard. Why did she even have to drive again after this incident? Even more infuriating, she was confronted by a manager who reportedly didn't even ask her if she was okay, and reprimanded for parking the bus in the wrong place. Hell, she should be applauded for getting the rig back without a scratch, considering she was likely on auto-pilot after such an event!

This is, sadly, a common occurrence for us out there. When our management refuses to acknowledge that we engage in virtual warfare on the streets of this city with little protection, and then insults us by reducing our benefits each contract, their actions alone are criminal. The public has a minimized perception that we're "only bus drivers", yet lately our union does little to educate it otherwise. There needs to be a concerted effort to support the front line workers, from management to the riding public to law enforcement to the legislature. Laws should not only be enforced, but violators should be punished.

I hope that if I'm confronted with an attacker, that my "response" is "reasonable" enough to warrant keeping my job, and my freedom. My hopes and prayers remain, as always, for the safety and protection of my fellow operators.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Fun with Fussy Britches

Deacon's Note: As the miles add up, the potential for ornery behavior increases. The trick is to keep it fun, or it becomes oh so... tedious to be a bus operator. I choose to have fun, with a dish of ornery on the side. I heard about this prank from a fellow operator shortly after ticket printers replaced old-fashioned tickets from the 'cutter'.

Uncouth teenagers tend to annoy me. Is this a sign of "getting old"? To the contrary, I believe it's a sign of my dislike of rude people. You know the ones. They have their earplugs in, don't look at you when boarding, etc. There are plenty of kids who have great manners, and kudos to their parents. So, when Miss Fussy Britches boarded my bus the other day wearing clothing too revealing for a 15-year-old, complete with orange hair, nose studs, snotty face, and tats she's too young to understand the significance of, I was a bit miffed. Not at her appearance mind you. I've come to accept if people want to look like a bad carnival act, it's their business. Usually they're nice, and nothing fazes me any more.

Miss FB puts in her money, but I do nothing. I hate being ignored, take it as an insult even.

My time clock shows I'm plenty early, and I need to kill some time. Might as well have fun while I'm doing so, I reckon. My thumb is poised over the screen, but I say nothing, do nothing. She sighs. Hands on hips. Gives me a dirty look. I raise my eyebrows at her as if to say, "Yes, smartass?" Instead, I motion for her to remove the earbuds.

"What?" she snarls.

"First," I reply in my Nice Operator Voice, tinged with a tad of over-sweet sarcasm, "good morning, Miss. Second, the machine doesn't read minds. What type of fare would you like?"

"Youth All Day, of course!" Miss FB says to me, pouting while simultaneously rolling her hideously made-up eyes. The other passengers, while silent, are probably enjoying this scene.

"Well don't tell me," I say with feigned indignation. "It's the machine that gives you the fare, tell it what you want."

Miss FB sighs again and leans into the ticket printer. "I said Youth All Day!"

Still, no ticket prints out.

"Did we leave our manners at home today?" I ask. "This machine abhors rudeness."

"Watch what you call me dude, or I'll report you!"

A few chuckles from the Honored positions. Stifling laughter, I dummy up my English.

"Please and thank you are the preferred response to a Voice-Activated Ticket Dispensary, Miss."

One of my elderly passengers, with whom I had been discussing discourteous youth, gives a hearty laugh and covers her mouth. Miss FB turns around to see Granny grinning at a book in her lap. She looks up at her and says, "This is a wonderful story, you might enjoy it."

Nice cover-up, I think.

"I don't read, old lady."

Granny nods her head and raises her eyebrows as if to say "obviously, dumbass".

A full minute has ticked off my clock, and it's time to roll.

"Well, Miss which is it? After a certain amount of time, the farebox eats your money and won't give you a ticket."

"Fine!" she shouts. Leaning inches from the ticket printer she says slowly, enunciating clearly but not too loudly, "One Youth All Day ticket, please!"

Instantly, I press the corresponding button on my screen and the ticket prints. Miss FB actually jumps back a little in surprise. She recovers quickly, snatches the ticket, gives me a petulant look and walks back to a seat.

Turning to my side window, I let out the laugh that has been held inside, albeit silently. Don't want Miss FB in on the trick too soon.

A few minutes later, two disgustingly "normal" looking teens get on and the young lady says "May I please have two Youth All Day fares, sir?"

I've already seen the $5 bill in her hand before they boarded and pressed the corresponding button, so the tickets begin printing instantly. I'm sitting there with both hands on the wheel, watching Miss FB. She now has her mouth open a little, shocked at how quickly their tickets printed.

The fun over, I glance back every few minutes, as usual, at my passengers. Granny has sported a full grin ever since Miss FB's fare printed, and she lets out a hearty laugh as our eyes meet. Miss FB herself scowls at me, and once I thought I even saw an extended middle finger. An indication of her last IQ score, I gather.

Luckily, Miss FB deboards before Granny. As we roll on, Granny wags her index finger at me.

"You naughty, naughty man!" she says with a chuckle.

"Come on now ma'am," I say, "do you really blame me?" I wink at her.

"Nicely done," she replies with a sharp nod. "Haven't seen many drivers with such a wicked sense of humor! Loved it, actually. It was all I could do to keep from spitting my chewers onto my lap."

And that, my friends, is one example of how I honor my Daddy's wise advice to "have fun every day".

Friday, July 17, 2015

Stingy Neighbors

Having just finished driving Line 6 from Jantzen Beach to downtown Portland and back all day, what strikes me most is not the hordes of passengers these operators ferry each day. It's not the shenanigans some of the riders pull, or the horrid traffic. It's Washingtonians driving here who either don't know our traffic laws or simply don't care. After today's work, I'll say it's the latter.

On C-Tran (Vancouver/Clark County, WA) buses, there is a sign on the back. It's a triangle, with the mere suggestion that drivers yield to a bus as it re-enters traffic from a stop. Over 90% of Washington drivers seem to have a "Yeah, right" attitude regarding transit rules. Why shouldn't they, when C-Tran's laissez faire attitude of just putting a sign without a warning light like TriMet does, just encourages drivers to ignore it?

Dealing with the traffic on I-5 northbound is dreadful. The backup begins around 2 p.m. every weekday, and doesn't subside until after 7:00. It is ridiculous that a metropolitan area with over 3,000,000 people has so antiquated a freeway system, often down to two lanes in some of the most congested areas. Many of the commuters call Washington their home state, yet Oregonians foot the biggest bill for road upkeep and repairs. When Oregon asked Washington to pony up some cash to build a new I-5 bridge (the Columbia River Crossing project), their legislature at the last minute decided it was too expensive. As a result the traffic continues to get worse with no plans for relief in the immediate future.

Washington drivers, in my experience, are some of the rudest, most reckless drivers on our roads. They totally ignore our flashing 'Yield' signals easily 5-to-1 times more than Oregon drivers. They cut us off (and flip us off while doing it) with regularity, and constantly exhibit recklessly dangerous driving. Whenever I drive the 6, I have to be especially careful crossing the street at Jantzen Beach, because the 90% of cars with WA plates haven't been taught about pedestrians and crosswalks. I've almost been struck by drivers who routinely shout obscenities as they careen past me. This isn't very neighborly behavior, considering many of them shop on our side of the state line to take advantage of our lack of a sales tax.

Since they can't abide by Oregon laws yet take advantage of our fair state's ample generosity, I have a few suggestions. First, we should levy a toll on all bridges linking our states, to be collected solely from Washingtonians. Evidently, there was one some time ago. If we charge them to use our roads, perhaps we could resurrect the CRC project and make some critical improvements to our freeways. They use our roads, why shouldn't we charge them for the privilege?

Also, I would add a 2% sales tax on purchases made by Washingtonians (or all out-of-staters) in Oregon. Might be kind of hard to determine a customer's domicile, but maybe not in this digital age. Lord knows we're taxed to the max as Oregon residents, but our neighbors to the north simply thumb their noses and laugh at our polite examples such as "the zipper".

Of course, many of my fellow operators live in Washington, and I suppose some of y'all will find my rant a tad offensive. They pay our hefty Oregon income tax, and I appreciate them. My brothers and sisters aren't the culprits here, however. It's your fellow Washingtonians who need some driving lessons, because they are some of the worst drivers I've seen in my 40 years behind the wheel. To be fair, we have our own share of asshats; today I witnessed a Portland cop blatantly blow through a light that was red a full second before he entered the intersection. But we already know the cops here could care less about enforcing traffic laws, because they're not very observant themselves.

With Portland's metro area forecasting steady growth for the next few decades, something has to be done. Unless Washington takes some neighborly steps, I'm in favor of forcing them to pay their share. Until then, I'll continue giving WA cars a wide berth and a few choice words muttered northward.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Service Animals, or Animal Service?

Deacon's Note: I've touched on this subject before (See To Serve or Bite). This time we explore it from yet another twisted angle.

We are on the front lines of mass transit. Soldiers behind the wheel, pilots of a 20-ton urban assault vehicle. When management makes a change, we're expected to not only inform the public, but also enforce these rules. We take the shots, the uppity-ups sit back and relax.

Our management recently fine-tuned its policy regarding Service Animals:

"All service animals traveling on a TriMet vehicle must: Be on a leash or in a container under its owner/handler's control and behave appropriately. [Cats] birds, reptiles, amphibians and rodents must be kept within an enclosed carrier or container. Must remain at its owner/handler's feet, or on owner/handler's lap. The animal is not to sit on a vehicle seat. And, must not be aggressive toward people or other animals. The care and supervision of a service animal is solely the responsible of its owner/handler. Customers traveling with animals are subject to the same general rules that apply to all passengers. Any damage or soiling caused by the animal is the responsibility of the animal's owner/handler. Operators may ask the customer if the animals is a service animal. Operators may refuse service if the animal does not meet the TriMet guidelines listed above."

Not much of a change, per se, except they made it easier for passengers to lie about their pets being "service animals". And lie they do. Not only do they lie about Fido's status, but they encourage others to follow their lead. "Just say it's a service animal," I overheard someone say on my bus recently. "Then they have to let you ride."

One operator recently suggested a rider's pet had to be in a carrier. Another passenger immediately began berating the driver about not knowing the rules. Poor operator was trying to tell the lady she could ride but had to keep Fido on her lap. Snobby Sally insisted on their getting off the bus and threatened to complain about the driver, citing his "attitude". We can't win, it seems.

This new wording encourages more deception from the riding public. Some people bask in the glory of giving us grief at every opportunity. Now, everybody's dog can be a "service animal", and even if they're not they can sit in their lap or at their "handler's" feet. Riiiight. I've seen people struggling to keep their dogs under control on the sidewalk, then drag them onto my bus and insist it's their service, or companion animal.

Just last year, an aggressive dog killed another passenger's smaller dog on a MAX train. If we allow an animal on board which in turn attacks another passenger and/or their companionable service-less mutt, are we then liable? We cannot predict the future, our hands are fairly tied when it comes to "enforcement", and we're trained to be non-confrontational. So by not allowing certain frauds on our bus, we can get customer complaints; if we were to allow Snarling Sid on the bus and he takes a chunk out of Snidely Sam's leg, we're in trouble for that too? Something smells bad here, and we're the ones choking on it.

Our federal government needs to fix the ADA rules. Not only should service animals be professionally trained, but they should have documentation to prove it. I love it when an actual service animal boards my bus with its human. They usually have a harness, and if a guide dog for the blind, a proper handle. Once inside, they lie quietly and act as they are trained to. Several times, I've had to ask passengers to make their counterfeit companions lie down and not bother folks. By doing so, I'm setting myself up for abuse, snide comments, or (God forbid) worse. Until the government cracks down and forces the issue, people will lie with abandon so Fido can accompany them on their rambles about town.

Sure, it's expensive to professionally train an animal. Yet those who actually need help from these wonderful helpers probably agree there need to be tighter guidelines. Until then, I don't feel safe when frauds bring their brutes on board and are coached by shady characters to be blatantly dishonest. But then again, I don't see our transit agency acting very concerned about our "safety".


Friday, July 3, 2015

We're The Good Guys

Recently, one of my fellow drivers came upon a fight in a North Portland street. Somebody was opening a 55-gallon of whupass on a kid, and our heroine 'Scout' (somehow she reminds me of this nickname) didn't like what she saw. With bus horn blaring, she scared the offenders off. Scout deserves kudos for this, but knowing her generous and kind soul, she's not the type to toot her own horn. Just the one on her bus to give aid as needed.

Bus operators are often denigrated, maligned and falsely accused of any number of heinous acts. While we're not perfect, we work very hard at keeping those around us safe. On the bus or on the street, we consider it our sacred duty to protect folks from the possible carnage caused by their inattention. Downtown on the transit mall, pedestrians dart out into the street against the signal. Light rail, buses and streetcar operators keep a constant eye out for the errant jaywalker. When you hear about a tragedy occurring involving transit, it's as if we're automatically to blame. Yet there are no headlines about the hundreds of lives we save daily. It's a sad commentary on our society that we'd rather see the gore rather than the miracles of life.

Each vehicle has a horn, which we're trained to use only to warn of danger rather than out of anger. Plenty of people test our patience, many times each day. To resist the temptation of honking at them and throwing a one-finger salute is difficult. If we give in to this urge to blast away, the "offended" party will likely call in a complaint and whine about it. This results in unnecessary counseling by our managers, who are forced to scold us even when they know the complaint is likely bogus.

Of every 100 calls to our customer service line, about 99.5 are complaints. Compliments are rare, but prized. On my bus one day, two very nice ladies were talking about the "horrible" bus operators they've experienced. They continued, ad nauseum, until I couldn't take it any longer.

"When was the last time a driver did something nice for you?" I blurted out.  "I mean, are you saying we're all assholes?"

Silence. I feared the worst. Had I overstepped, earning myself a complaint for complaining about their complaints? At this moment, I felt more ornery than a badger with hemorrhoids. Yet simultaneously, more nervous than a hungover groom at a shotgun wedding.

"Well," one of the ladies said a few moments later, "no they're not. I mean, you aren't."

"Thank you for that, I was beginning to worry."

 "But the other day," the other lady began quietly, "I was waving for a bus to stop because I was late, and he just kept on going." By the last syllable, her bravery returned along with the volume in her voice.

We discussed this further, and I discovered that she left her house late, and was across the street on a busy avenue at rush hour.

"You know why he probably passed you by?" I offered.

"Yes," she replied testily, "because he's an asshole, and he made me late to work."

"Is it true that he's an asshole for possibly saving your life?"

"What?!? He didn't stop!"

"Sure, I get that. But you admitted you were late, that's one mark against you. Another, you weren't even near your stop. I wouldn't have stopped either, and here's why: Unless it's a time point and I'm early, we don't service empty stops. Since you were across the street and not in the crosswalk, you were only a blip on the radar. To stop would have encouraged you to cross that busy street against the light, possibly not even in a crosswalk. You could have been injured or even killed."

"Hmm," she replied thoughtfully. "I didn't think of that."

"We're not taxis, you know."

"Yes, but it's your job to pick us up! I'm usually there and he's late!" Her anger had returned.

"Our job, ma'am, is to ferry our passengers safely to their desired locations. Everyone on that bus had evidently arrived at their stop on time. You, on the other hand, were simply early for the next bus. Was this your regular driver?"

"I don't know, what does that matter?"

"If it wasn't, he didn't know you're a regular."

"Don't you people talk to each other? I mean, about who rides the bus?"

"Only when they're rude or dangerous," I shot back. "If the driver is on the Extra Board, the regular driver didn't make it to work that day. The sub driver has no way of knowing who rides the bus. There are nearly a thousand of us, and it's statistically impossible to know every regular on every line. Plus, we usually only have 10 minutes to prepare for a run off the board."

The air seemed to have left her argument. She seemed to take a minute to digest this information.

"Nobody's ever explained these things to me, and I appreciate your kind manner."

This shocked me. I thought my pissed-offishness was shining brightly. I decided to tone it down a bit.

"We're mostly concerned for your safety. We're sorry if you miss the bus, but we can't risk your safety, or that of others."

By that point, we were at the end of the line. The two ladies thanked me, a bit more profusely than I likely deserved. I wished them a nice day and moved on down the line.

A month or so later, I received a commendation from one of these ladies. In their comments, they mentioned that they didn't realize how many drivers are complained about. They complimented my driving and my patience. I was humbled, because I had interrupted their conversation and thought I was a bit testy. Perhaps I touched their guilt button and my transgressions were forgiven.

Often, I wonder if Scout's interference was ever appreciated via a commendation. She, and our many other drivers who do good deeds daily, deserve many more than we receive.

I was lucky that day. The next week somebody complained that I flipped them the bird. I don't do that, but at that point I wished I had. They probably deserved it.