Monday, March 6, 2017

Now Just Let Us Do Our Jobs!

Having covered both the early and late issues of driving a route, let's see where the added pressure to perform perfectly comes in on the perspective of safety.

"Safety is Our Core Value," our transit agency boasts. Operators and supervisors know that's not exactly true, defined by its recent push on us to perfectly execute pressure-cooker schedules. Safety is the key function of our jobs. Not this pie-in-the-sky "customer service" key phrase management hisses as an afterthought. Public transportation serves a major role in any city's economy. Its job is to safely and efficiently transport people to and from their destinations. Sure, it's an added bonus to have your operator be kind and courteous, and that we are a majority of the time. But management's dangerous belief that we should drive the schedule is something Risk Management should be wary of.

We're trained as newbies to A) Show up to work on time (meaning 15-30 minutes early, without pay); B) Not damage the equipment; and C) Develop and utilize a skill set enabling us to think and act quickly to keep our passengers and everyone else around the vehicle free of harm. I could write an entire book on safe operation. It takes a cooperative effort between the agency, an educated riding public, and the operator to keep the wheels rolling smoothly. The most important part of this system is the mental and physical health of operators. It takes a management team that is dedicated to the people it can't function without. With this in mind, you'd imagine management would be diligent in its efforts to make our jobs easier. A happier operator is a safer one. Harassed, insulted and violence-fearing drivers are distracted, and therefore not entirely focused on safe operation.

How many times have you been angry behind the wheel of your car? Maybe someone has insulted you, an argument at home has you keyed up and/or emotionally unbalanced, or you received some news from another source that monopolizes your thoughts. It's not that easy to put it all behind you and focus entirely on driving safely. You're distracted, not on top of your game. Other motorists' actions, even those minor infractions you can usually ignore, suddenly infuriate you. Road rage ensues. You become involved in a collision that's as much your fault as the other guy's. We can't do that. Once we get behind the wheel it's imperative we leave personal issues behind in order to safely transport our precious cargo.

Imagine your own company throwing down policies that may look good on paper, but thoroughly disrupt the normally-efficient routine of your work. A new rule that you immediately recognize as ridiculously disruptive is handed down from a management that is out of touch with what you do. You haven't been consulted on the rule's viability or long-term effects on those who must comply with it. Many, when faced with this situation, feel insulted and left out of the decision-making process. It's simply not efficient to change something that works well, replacing it with a concept that cannot ever be successful. This is why it's wise to have managers step down a few levels and actually do the work they oversee. It gives them a unique perspective of what their employees deal with. Unfortunately, it rarely happens.

Worker bees are the backbone of any economy. They're paid less to do the hardest work. They are easily insulted by those who are routinely disassociated with the very people they manage. Truly team players, they consult with each other and learn how to most efficiently perform their jobs under the conditions provided. With practice and teamwork, they become a smooth-running machine. Until something breaks, the machine can run very well for a long time. When the machine is deliberately altered without considering the function of related working mechanisms, it can remain broken; sometimes indefinitely.

We diligently strive to ensure our passengers' safety and timely arrival to their destinations. After the first few weeks of a new run, the operator has discovered the many factors which dictate how they will drive the route. Certain days are busier than others. Some stretches of the route allow for making up time lost in others. Many passengers are regulars, and we learn when their connecting buses will arrive at a shared stop so we will wait for them as long as possible. Those with disabilities require extra time to ensure they are properly secured for safe passage. We learn traffic light sequences, traffic patterns, and pedestrian behavior. If our routes cross light rail or freight train crossings, we discover when to expect them and are prepared for delays. There are some days when several things can go wrong, throwing our strategies to the wind, and nothing we can do will bring us back on schedule. Traffic accidents, road construction, protests, sudden changes in weather... they all can throw a lug nut into the works. No amount of mathematical calculations on the part of schedule writers can accurately predict these anomalies to produce the perfect schedule. They do come eerily close to perfect sometimes, but we all know what happens when things run smoothly a while.

When you watch an operator drive a bus, you don't see the many things he or she is watching for. You cannot read their minds as they calculate their next maneuver, predict motorist/bicyclist/pedestrian behaviors while instantly devising plans to safely avoid the worst-possible decisions others make around the vehicle. Our ears listen for anomalies in the vehicle's normal operating sounds. We keep one ear on passenger activities to ensure a conflict-free ride for all. Our eyes are always moving, our minds are constantly planning and rationalizing, our bodies always manipulating some or many controls, and our nerves on edge because we have to be prepared for any eventuality.

Now comes the "efficiency" deficiency I hinted at earlier. An operator, no matter how many years behind the wheel they may have, is not a machine. For management to arbitrarily begin to harass its operators if they're "consistently late" or "too early" is not only disruptive, but also short-sighted and unprofessional. I'm not saying that we're all above correction, but we are very good at our jobs. If you haven't been "in the seat" then it's logical to say you cannot fully understand the enormity of what safe operation entails. If an operator is worried about being counseled about running late, it's possible they could miss an important detail or safety protocol that could result in a collision. That's not safe operation, and management's meddling is a contributing factor to disrupting that operator's method of driving. Many of us have spent years perfecting our craft while parrying management's collective thrusts to tinker with machinery that isn't broken.

If we're pressured on this "on time" business too much, it can lead to operators being so afraid of discipline they let safety slide. More collisions could happen. If this is the result, then management should be assessed the Preventable Accidents their short-sighted actions cause.

We're taught from the first day to safely operate the district's vehicles. We dedicate our working lives to doing so. If management wants perfection, I dare them to come down and work in the trenches with the worker bees. It's an easy bet to make that they would become so frustrated with their own edicts they'd go running back to the safety of their cubicles before the day is done. So quit messing with us, folks. Let us continue to work with fellow operators and schedulers to make things better. You depend on us to make it all work. Stay out of the way and let us roll. People depend on us, and you should too.


  1. Well said, Deke. A much-needed explanation for non-operators to understand some of the many dynamics involved with bus operation. The Safety>Service>Schedule order is important for obvious reasons that sometimes need to be said. Thanks for informing those unfamiliar and for encouraging operators to keep it safe. Great pics as usual.

  2. Malicious management malfeasants!

  3. What is this new rule being talked about?
    Is it a new SOP?
    When did it become in effect?
    Was notice sent to all employees of the new rule?
    Was our union advised of the new rule?