- Safe travels? (Photo: John Hendel)
Last Friday Allyson Little was driving at the intersection of Campus Way South and Joyceton Drive in Maryland when she glimpsed an upsetting scene. It was around 2:30 p.m., she recalls now, and she glanced out the right window of her car and there sat one of the big, white, and instantly recognizable MetroAccess vans. More than 600 of these paratransit vehicles travel throughout D.C. as part of WMATA's $100-million service for riders with disabilities. Fine enough. But the woman had a double take when she realized the state of the driver — the MetroAccess employee looked completely asleep as he rested there at the red light.
Yes, she confirmed as she glanced through her passenger window. That driver was straight-up sleeping.
"I rolled down the window and told him to wake up," Little told me. She yelled with her best Laurence Fishburne voice, she says. "He acknowledged that he heard me. When we approached the next light, although we both had a car in front of us, he stayed at least a car's length behind."
The driver began to stir before she could snap a photo with her cell phone but she did catch his vehicle number — 4436. An avid Twitter user with nearly 33,000 tweets to her name, Little began describing the incident shortly after. The woman was immediately troubled at the idea of any driver sleeping. How could that be safe? She said the driver looked like he needed an espresso stat and worried that WMATA wasn't doing anything to prevent these MetroAccess drivers from sleeping at the wheel. But WMATA doesn't control these drivers, not directly, at least. WMATA contracts its MetroAccess operations out to California-based MV Transportation, a company that has run MetroAccess since 2005 and whose contract continues through mid-2013. WMATA is currently debating whether to renew its contract beyond that year.
The issue of exhausted MetroAccess drivers is hardly a new one, of course, especially around the holidays. This past November, tight holiday schedules resulted in one MetroAccess driver who worked more than 18 hours, The Examiner reported. Let me repeat — 18 hours. That's more hours than most people are even awake in a given day. "My eyes were crisscrossing," the driver said about her schedule, according to union statements. Is it any wonder that now, during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, a D.C. driver spotted a MetroAccess driver's eyes beginning to shut?
After that November incident, MetroAccess announced it would enforce 15-hour limits on its drivers, limits which had only informally been in place beforehand.
Yet the dangers of MetroAccess driver fatigue has haunted the service this whole past fall and before. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764, which represents about 800 MetroAccess drivers, staged a protest at the service's D.C. headquarters earlier this fall to oppose the new 13-hour work schedules the company had instituted this summer, up from 12-hour schedules. The drivers marched with signs and shouted, "Safety first!" in Hyattsville, Maryland, where I spoke to union president Wayne Baker. The union leader emphasized how unsafe the long working hours were, the risk in having tired drivers transport our city's disabled and elderly. "What happens if, God forbid, there's a fatality?" he asked me in a low voice in August.
The union alleges that fatigue-related dangers predate the new 13-hour shifts — this summer, Baker and the union released documents showing that MetroAccess drivers had been cited for fatigue more than a 100 times since 2008, as this WJLA report shows:
No change to the 13-hour schedule has since occurred, despite Baker and the union's ongoing campaign to reduce the hours. After Little's report, I asked MV Transportation how their drivers were doing during this holiday season.
"MV is committed to safety in everything we do, including ensuring that our drivers are well rested," MV spokeswoman Cristina Russell told me in a statement. "To that end, we have implemented work schedules that provide adequate time-off between shifts: Most drivers work three 12-hour shifts a week and drivers are not permitted to work more than 15 hours in a shift. We were in full compliance with these schedule goals over the recent holiday period."
I hope Russell speaks correctly. Perhaps the driver Little saw merely rested his eyes for a moment. Perhaps his exhaustion was an exception. Perhaps he hadn't worked an excessive number of hours and perhaps there was little danger involved. But what if that isn't the case?