Mortimer Downey, head of the D.C. Metro board's safety committee, has a request for D.C. Metrobus passengers. "Keep your eyes open," he said. "If you see the driver nodding off, speak to her or him. Help us out."
We wish we could say that was a joke, but no, that was his actual advice to passengers, according to The Washington Examiner's Kytja Weir. As she reported Thursday, 67 bus drivers have been caught napping on the job in a 19-month period.
It's been a consistent problem. Last year, The Examiner reported that 87 MetroAccess drivers were also caught falling asleep on the job during the previous three years. Four drivers were caught asleep multiple times in the same day.
And, no, we don't mean they were caught napping in a break room while on the clock. These were cases of people nodding off while behind the wheel of a bus. They were caught by automatic cameras in the buses that are activated by sudden movements like sharp swerves or hard braking.
Only one of the 67 drivers received any disciplinary action. Otherwise, they received "coaching." That was the case with the MetroAccess drivers, too.
These are, mind you, just the cases we have evidence for. Who knows how many times drivers nodded off but recovered before they had to slam on the brakes?
The culprit appears to be simple fatigue. About half of the 67 cases occurred while the drivers were working 16-hour swing shifts. A July report by Metro and the Tri-State Oversight Committee, an outside safety group, found 146 cases of drivers logging 16-20 hours in a day. Some regularly put in more than 40 hours of overtime a week. Those gargantuan amounts of overtime explains how more than 300 Metro employees boosted their base paychecks by $40,000 or more in 2010. This is, as the saying goes, "an accident waiting to happen" that is also blowing holes in Metro's budget.
The agency has been negotiating with the drivers' union to limit these hours. Downey has said he may unilaterally limit them if the negotiations continue to go nowhere. We recommend he do so immediately. That or start putting up signs on the buses that say: "Please ask the driver, 'Are you awake?' "