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The Oregonian exposes ‘culture of exhaustion’ among TriMet operators

Posted by on January 7th, 2013 at 11:03 am

Sunday’s front page.

On Sunday, The Oregonian published a major front page story on the issue of driver fatigue at TriMet. The report was the result of an eight month investigation into driving records and the findings are quite disconcerting to say the least. As someone who regularly shares the road just inches from buses and MAX trains, the thought that a driver might be drowsy or asleep at the wheel is very scary.

The Oregonian story recounts several anecdotes and backs them up with TriMet’s own reports and other documentation. In one example, reporter Joseph Rose wrote that, “In a 2010 case a veteran Line 75 driver decided to retire rather than fight a report that he fell asleep at the wheel ‘almost every day.'” When a rider complained that one driver had completely fallen asleep at a stop, the driver was never disciplined.

TriMet Director of Operations Shelly Lomax told the paper, “We do not have a policy against closing one’s eyes.”

The story cites several reasons for the “culture of exhaustion” at TriMet. Chief among them is that it’s cheaper for the agency to pay for overtime than to hire more operators and union rules are too easily bent by operators eager to rack up overtime pay.

Bus and bikes

Staying awake is key to
sharing the road.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Here’s more from The Oregonian:

“the budget-battered agency allows operators to manipulate work rules to log as many as 22 hours in a 24-hour period, filling open runs and fattening paychecks but crashing vehicles and terrifying riders along the way… The Oregonian found that many drivers spend 18, 19, 20 hours or more on the job in 24 hours.”

Local TriMet watchers are calling the revelations in the story, “shocking” and “disturbing.”

From a bike perspective, this problem is even more of a concern. Many of the busiest bike routes throughout the city — like SE Hawthorne and N Williams — are also high-frequency bus lines. On the new protected bike lanes on NE Multnomah Blvd in the Lloyd District, bikes and buses mix at intersections and stops. In locations like these, even a momentary lapse of attention can result in tragedy.

There’s a certain level of trust we put into the hands of bus operators. We expect them to be aware and alert in order to not run into us. TriMet must now rebuild that trust.

TriMet has responded to the story on their blog. Lomax wrote, “We… assure you that we have a safe system that you can trust.” The response did not directly address the facts published in The Oregonian story, nor did it outline any immediate policy changes.

We’re waiting to see what TriMet does to address their driver fatigue problem. Assurances on a blog that safety is a “core value” mean nothing when actions prioritize cost-cutting over public safety. The community should not settle for anything less than strong policy changes, discipline when necessary, and other actions to rebuild public trust.

Read The Oregonian story here.

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BethJason McHuffFred LiftonLenny Andersondavemess Recent comment authors
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davemess
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davemess

I don’t read the O online very often. But I have to say that the few times I do, I get really frustrated that is it quite clear that the “commuting” writer (Rose) continually attempts to portray cycling and transit in a bad light (granted I think this article brings up a good topic to discuss). But has he ever written anything negative about motorists? Just seems so biased to me (granted I’m biased as well, but I’m not writing for the major paper in the city and then trying to pass myself off as neutral).

Over and Doubt
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Over and Doubt

Another possible factor, from my days as a TriMet employee: At that time (more than five years ago), TriMet was having trouble attracting applicants. Folks who wanted to drive big vehicles could make more money driving long-haul trucks, and such jobs were easy to find.

Fred Lifton
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Fred Lifton

Maybe this is a problem, and maybe it isn’t. The O has published so much clearly inflammatory half-truth and outright falsehood that I don’t place much stock in anything it prints.

Eric
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Eric

Any plans for a story about the culture of “fake busy?” You know, people alleging to be so important that we should just all learn to deal with the fact that they are too busy texting, phoning, logging in, surfing, shaving, and keeping the venti hazelnut mocha from spilling on the remote that they don’t have time to watch the road, let alone give a frack about anybody else on it?

Nah, wouldn’t want to alarm anybody.

Andrew K
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Andrew K

I read this article on O-Live yesterday and I honestly don’t know what to think.

On one hand, yes of course it is a concern of mine and everyone else traveling in the Portland Metro area. Buses and MAX trains are gigantic vehicles and we trust the operators to be alert. On the other hand, the Oregonian has lost so much credibility with me that any article they write, no matter what the topic, I always read it with skepticism.

So the true question becomes, has there been a spike in accidents involving Tri-Met drivers and pedestrians and/or bikes over the last few years? I know there have been accidents, but as their been MORE accidents is the question. I didn’t see any evidence in the article that indicated an increase in number of incidents, an increase in injuries, or an increase in transit fault deaths. Maybe I missed it. The “incident reports” they cite amount to a lot of he said/she said type scenarios with no proof. If someone reports an incident with a driver that doesn’t mean anything actually happened.

I also can’t help but notice the article focuses a huge amount of attention on driver pay, union rules, and benefits. Is that what this is all really about?

I agree that this report may be cause for concern. However, considering the source I can’t help but reserve judgment and a recommendation for action until I see a more unbiased investigation. That speaks a lot more against the Oregonian then it does in favor of or against Tri-Met. Again, given the source and how little credibility I give them, my gut instinct tells me this is a whole lot of fear mongering to sell newspapers.

Rol
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Rol

Nice to see good old-fashioned investigative reporting. TriMet is clearly operating beyond its means, like 99% of America. Their blog says this problem is “rare.” I would like it to be “non-existent” please.

Jayson
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Jayson

Joe Rose is an angry man. If only he’d find a new way to vent rather than lambast TriMet and bicyclists every day on this blog.. The O’s decision to put his coffee shop rants on the front page indicates they really have nothing to write about anymore..

grimm
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grimm

Doesn’t the trucking industry have regulations and fed/state mandated log sheets so that drivers can only work so many hours behind the wheel? Maybe it could be a model to consider.

Ted Buehler
Guest

Nice investigative reporting by The Oregonian.

Gathering data, summarizing data into digestible facts, and presenting it in a way that the masses can relate to is one of the fine roles of print media. Thanks for keeping this up, O!

Ted Buehler

Lenny Anderson
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Lenny Anderson

A lot of TriMet Ops love overtime and look for all they can get each sign up…every three months. The union will protect this option, and it does save the agency money…meaning more service for riders. I have not seen a spike in accidents, so what’s the problem? I have more confidence in TriMet than in the Oregonian, frankly. Now if they would write a piece on all the grumpy Ops out there! At least they are awake I guess!

Bjorn
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Bjorn

The biggest take away from this article for me is that tri-met is making some poor hiring decisions. The average employee salary listed was calculated assuming some significant levels of overtime. I’d like a better analysis of if this system of underhiring is actually saving them money. I’d say that maybe if people weren’t working so much overtime they might not be calling in sick to 10% of their regularly scheduled shifts…

matthew vilhauer
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matthew vilhauer

i thought trimet drivers were on dope? thanks for clearing this up!

they’re just a bit drowsey from sucking on the over-time teet evidently. perfectly safe & acceptable.

carry on….

ryan
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ryan

@davemess: If you’re jealous of holiday pay on birthdays (and other union benefits) maybe you should be unionized.

Pete
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Pete

This is truly shocking. I mean, I never see state, city, county, or port employees or their contractors doing busy-work on nights, weekends, or holidays. My neighbor is a police detective in a large city, uses motor pool vehicles for almost all of his extensive driving (45-mile commute one-way), and has an expensive Porsche in his garage with a license plate that he admitted to me is short for “King of Overtime”… but I’m sure he’s an exception. And now you’re telling me there’s a government-subsidized company where the rules are being bent? I don’t believe you.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

TriMet Ops are highly trained professional drivers. The real threat to us bikers is from all those amateurs on their cell phones behind tinted glass. How about some enforcement on this front from PPB.
Overtime is something some folks like and some folks don’t…I used to offer my OT to colleagues when I ran presses. Skilled operators of any machine know when its time to take a break, though mistakes do happen and always will. When it does, they always pay big time.
The O’s shrill headlines bore me.

Beth
Guest

MORE service for riders? Really? Routes were cut and frequencies decreased on multiple remaining lines when the last fare increase and systemwide re-zoning went into effect. So far, little if any of that service has been restored. Show me where the savings is actually going. I have serious doubts that it is going to increase service.