Death, Maiming, Money, and Muni

The enormous costs -- human and financial -- of bad drivers and lax discipline at the San Francisco Municipal Railway

"Lots of drivers are idiots."

Burns, the Muni director, says that he would like to improve his agency's hiring standards, but that it is hard to do so because "there are not enough people out there for us to fill the positions."

Once drivers are hired, Muni puts unnecessary pressure on all of them, good and bad, qualified and not. And the agency's disciplinary process is so benign as to be essentially useless in terms of rooting out bad operators.

Dr. June Fisher, associate clinician at UCSF and an internationally renowned expert on the health of transit workers, has been studying Muni drivers since 1978. By its nature, Fisher says, bus driving is one of the most stressful occupations in the world, and one that's full of conflicting demands. In San Francisco, for example, drivers are torn by pressure from above to meet tight schedules, while driving in a hilly, pedestrian-filled environment in vehicles afflicted with blind spots. (Although Muni vehicles are usually behind schedule -- only 46 percent of the fleet was on time in 2001 -- management closely monitors the timing of the stops, and drivers can be reprimanded for arriving at a scheduled stop late, or, for that matter, early.)

Due to an unusually high rate of driver attrition -- about a third higher than comparable transit systems -- Muni has to replace 10 percent of its 2,235 drivers every year. In addition, 14 percent of the scheduled operators are absent from work on any given day, according to Muni documents. The high rates of turnover and absenteeism mean that there is a permanent shortage of available drivers, a constant need for new hires, and a continuing call for drivers to work overtime, says Hundenski.

And when it comes to transit, overtime is dangerous. Federal transit safety law requires that transit operators "may not remain on duty for more than 12 consecutive hours or more than 12 hours spread over a period of 16 hours." A 1999 state audit reported that every Muni operator examined in a spot check was in violation of this law. "The records indicated that these employees were on duty anywhere from 13 to 15 hours per working day with the exception of one operator who was on duty for 19 hours," the audit said.

Transit planner Einstein says there is a common thread in the hundreds of bus accidents he has studied: In the vast majority of cases, fatigued drivers are rushing to catch up with tight schedules.

Muni reported in 2001 that 70 percent of its drivers chalked up one or more accidents a year; 8 percent of the drivers scored four or more accidents a year; 4 percent had five or more. Yet the agency's system of driver discipline is almost laughably lenient. Drivers are generally allowed to be at fault in three or more major accidents a year before being subject to dismissal, says Muni spokesman Alan Siegel. (Major accidents are defined as causing more than $5,000 in property damage.)

After his first "avoidable" accident, a Muni driver receives some retraining. His second or third avoidable accident results in more retraining, with the possibility of a suspension of up to 30 days. Even racking up three major accidents in a year doesn't necessarily mean termination. A driver who racks up five avoidables in a year has a good chance of being fired, says Siegel, but there is no limit on the number of unavoidable accidents a driver can incur without being disciplined.

Making matters worse, chronically bad drivers can slip through the system of discipline year after year because after 12 months, each accident is expunged from the record (in what is called a "rolling drop"). In other words, a bad driver might be allowed as many as five major, avoidable accidents a year for his entire career.

"A rolling drop of one year is categorically irresponsible," Einstein says. "If you keep expunging the record, you cannot identify drivers that really need to be gone. And you have no rationale with which to dismiss them."

Muni's leniency in this regard is not shared by similarly configured, but safer, transit systems. At the Seattle transit agency, whose union drivers have a much better safety record than Muni's drivers, accidents remain on a driver's record for four years, and a system of "points" is used in deciding driver discipline. The San Diego transit system rolls accidents off the driver records after three years. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority never expunges an accident from the driver's record and can take a driver's entire career into account when necessary, says a spokesman.

The Massachusetts Bay Area Transit Authority rolls an accident off the record every two years. But five avoidable accidents incurred during the two-year period results in an automatic "recommendation for discharge."

And in Seattle, San Diego, Atlanta, and Boston, a driver who tested positive for cocaine while on duty (or off duty) -- as Muni's Sarah Benton did -- would be given a swift boot, not a promotion.

Unlike those agencies, Muni has no rules for the automatic termination of an operator convicted of driving under the influence. Muni allows drivers, on their first DUI conviction, to "reduce the loss of pay and return to driving duties" by attending a class about substance abuse.

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