Mta Firms Up Ban On Phones

Train, Bus Operators Face Zero-tolerance Policy

July 10, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,

In the wake of fatal transit accidents across the nation, the Maryland Transit Administration has adopted a zero-tolerance policy under which any bus or train operator found using a cell phone or text-messaging device on the job will be fired, even for a first offense.

The MTA took the action shortly after the Washington Metro system announced a similar change Thursday morning, scrapping a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" policy and vowing to fire violators outright.

Texting has been identified as a major factor in rail accidents - and 25 deaths - in California and Massachusetts during the past year. The Maryland and Washington systems, meanwhile, are investigating recent rail accidents that left a total of 11 people dead, including two teenage boys from Lutherville.

The decision by MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld came about an hour after The Baltimore Sun inquired about his agency's policy in light of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration announcement. At first, the MTA said it was sticking by a policy that it "can" fire violators. Under the new policy, the MTA says it "will" fire operators who text or use cell phones while at the controls.

MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene said the agency will inform its operators' union of the change but will not bargain over it. "There is no negotiation when it comes to public safety," she said.

The policy will apply to all bus drivers, light rail and Metro subway operators and "any other functions that require critical attention to the task at hand," Greene said. It covers light rail fare inspectors, she said, but not MTA police.

The policy does not apply to MARC train engineers, who are Amtrak employees.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said Amtrak engineers are forbidden from using cell phones or texting devices except for emergencies. He said they may have cell phones with them in the cab but are required to keep them turned off. However, Black said, Amtrak's policy on violations is similar to the MTA's before Thursday: Dismissal is possible but not automatic.

Greene said that because the MTA and Washington Metro serve many of the same customers, it is important to maintain consistency in the agencies' safety policies. She said Wiedefeld had contacted Maryland's acting Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley and the office of Gov. Martin O'Malley and obtained their approval for the action.

Both agencies are dealing with the aftermath of fatal accidents in which operator performance is a subject of investigation.

Nine people were killed June 22 in the collision of two trains on the Washington Metro's Red Line. According to Washington Metro officials, preliminary results of the probe indicate the operator of the train that stuck the other was not using her cell phone at the time of the crash. That operator, Jeanice McMillan, died in the collision, and Metro officials said investigators found her cell phone in her back pack.

On Sunday, two 17-year-old boys were struck by an MTA light rail train near Lutherville station; both have died. That incident - and the operator's actions - are under investigation.

Texting has been cited as a factor in a September accident near Chatsworth, Calif., and a May crash in Boston.

In the California incident, 25 people were killed when a commuter train collided with a freight train after failing to stop at a red light. Investigators determined that the engineer - who died in the crash - had been texting while on duty.

In Boston, 62 people were injured when a trolley ran into the rear of another trolley stopped between two underground stations. The trolley driver was indicted on charges of gross negligence Wednesday after admitting he had been texting his girlfriend at the time of the crash.

Within hours of that crash, Boston transit authorities adopted what is seen as the nation's toughest cell phone-texting policy.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority spokesman Joe Pesaturo said operators of buses, trains and trolleys will be fired immediately the first time they are found to have used an electronic device on the job. Even operators who have a cell phone or texting device in their pocket or purse will be suspended for 10 days for the first offense, and fired for a second.

Neither Washington's nor Maryland's policy forbids possession of the devices.

In a news release Thursday morning, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority general manager John Catoe said there is no excuse for cell phone use or texting by bus drivers and train operators except in an emergency - even when there are no passengers on board.

Greene said the MTA has had a policy in place for "well over a year or two" forbidding operators from using cell phones.

Until now, however, the MTA operated under a "tiered system" in which the sanctions rose with multiple offenses. "This is a much more aggressive policy," she said.

In spite of the policy, MTA customers have persistently complained that operators pay little attention to the rules.

One reader from Canton posted a comment on a Sun blog Thursday claiming to have seen violations on the No. 13 bus line.

"The drivers on that line are forever on their phones when driving the buses," the reader reported. "I have even seen a few go through the red light at East and O'Donnell. One of these days they are going to cause a horrific accident at this intersection."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.