Cameras catch 67 Metrobus operators dozing while driving

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Photo - Metrobus (Examiner file photo)
Metrobus (Examiner file photo)
Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir

A total of 67 Metrobus drivers were caught sleeping on camera while driving their buses on local roads in a 19-month period, according to data obtained by The Washington Examiner.

And one of them was caught dozing while driving twice within six months.

The incidents all occurred while the operators were behind the wheel of their moving buses, as the cameras are triggered to record the drivers only when a sudden bus movement such as hard braking, swerving or a crash occurs. The drivers were filmed with their eyes closed, nodding or sleeping between August 2010 -- when Metro started installing the cameras -- through Feb. 24, 2012, three days before The Washington Examiner requested the data.

How the cameras work
The cameras that caught the sleeping Metrobus operators constantly film drivers yet preserve the recordings only when the vehicle makes an unusual move, such as braking too hard, accelerating too quickly or hitting something. The cameras capture the eight seconds before the event that triggers it, then four seconds after.

The numbers represent a small fraction of the total number of operators and drives made around the region, but the cases highlight the ongoing safety problem of fatigue among Metro workers.

"It's not happening on every route or every day, but if it is happening at all we've got to be concerned," said Mortimer Downey, the head of the Metro board's safety committee.

Typically the drivers receive coaching after being caught on camera nodding off.

Only one driver faced any disciplinary action, with a suspension, the records show. The driver caught twice in June 2011, then again in December, received coaching both times but no disciplinary action.

Eight were pulled off their routes for a medical evaluation, but half of those medical tests found no problems.

Nearly half of the cases, 32 out of 68 sleeping incidents, occurred when drivers were working swing shifts, when the bus operators cover the morning rush, take a break, then return to the road for the afternoon. That can mean 16 hours from when they arrive at work to when they finish their run, not including their own commute times.

Metro has acknowledged that most of its Metrobus facilities do not have rest or "quiet" rooms where operators can rest during breaks.

It was not clear how many of the drivers were working overtime when they fell asleep, but a preliminary Metro study of bus driver fatigue from July found that some bus drivers are working more than 20 hours a day, four more than allowed under Metro's rules.

"It doesn't mean that swing shifts are automatically bad and that overtime is automatically bad," Downey said. "But it means that it needs to be used judiciously." He also said the agency needs to ensure that employees can be honest with themselves and the agency about when they are working beyond their limits.

"Metrobus has instituted and focused on safety and fatigue awareness programs, and we continue to identify new initiatives that keep safety at the forefront of each and every action," the agency said in a written statement.

Metro studied similar fatigue issues on the rail system last year after The Examiner documented workers logging 16-hour days for weeks on end. The agency is slated to update its board next month

on efforts to reduce fatigue.

In the meantime, Downey urges riders to stay focused, as well. "Keep your eyes open, too. If you see the driver nodding off, speak to her or him," he said. "Help us out."

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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