Passenger Penelope Haddix looked nervously toward the front of the No. 64 bus as it headed west on 1st Street in Santa Ana and shook her head slowly. "What do you mean you're not a driver?" she asked the operator. "What is this, Candid Camera?"
Substitute driver Marie Latino steered the vehicle toward a bus stop without missing a beat. "Yep, I'm a maintenance supervisor," she said.
Latino, 30, an Orange County Transit District supervisor whose job is to make sure the buses are cleaned and fueled every night, was one of the 62 drivers filling in on Wednesday as the bus strike entered its third day.
The district used some supervisors, five trainees and a few union drivers who crossed the picket lines to keep 12 of its 53 bus routes in operation.
Although OCTD officials said complaints about drivers have not been higher than usual this week, the newcomers faced heavy scrutiny from some strikers who questioned their driving ability. Passengers, for their part, said they were relieved to have a ride. And the substitute drivers said they were simply trying to provide a service.
Striker Stephen C. Morales, an OCTD driver for 10 1/2 years, rode as a passenger on the Santa Ana-Westminster line and said he was not impressed with a driver's performance.
"There's a big difference between professional drivers and these substitutes," Morales said. "They (the substitutes) are making some big mistakes."
Morales said he witnessed a substitute driver with one hand on the wheel, who let passengers off at an unauthorized stop, talked excessively and allowed passengers to stand too close to the front door.
"I wasn't being technical and I'm not trying to give them (substitutes) a hard time," Morales said. "But that's not the right way to drive a bus."
Diana Solomon, a 12-year driver who also rode as a passenger, said she is concerned about passenger safety. "It's scary if some of them don't know how to drive the right way," Solomon said.
Morales and Solomon said they were riding on some of the lines to see whether the substitutes were driving properly.
But OCTD official Joanne Curran said there should be no concern about safety. The drivers are all required to have a Class 2 license, which is issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles and permits the transportation of passengers, Curran said. The licenses are renewed every two years, and every driver must also have a medical certificate.
"These (supervisors) are all cream-of-the-crop people, and many of them were regular drivers before they became supervisors," Curran said. "They are our best and our brightest. We have pretty good drivers out there."
Todd Terpening, district superintendent of scheduling, said all drivers were checked to make sure they had special licenses and were also given tours of routes they were assigned.
"The drivers are doing exceptionally well in getting service out on the street," Terpening said. "We could have shut down the whole system and not have any buses running. But we're not."
Jim Seeks, supervisor of operation services for six years, normally arrives at his office at 7 a.m. and works most of the time behind a desk. For the past three days, Seeks, a former driver, has gone to work two hours earlier to substitute and to help train a new operator.
"It's good to get back out on the road," he said while supervising a trainee. "I enjoy interacting with passengers."
Seeks, who regularly handles statistics for OCTD, said he has not been nervous about returning to his old job because he has occasionally substituted for drivers when they were absent.
"It's like driving a regular car," Seeks said. "Once you develop these skills, you never lose them."
As the substitutes drove in and out of picket lines, which were stationed outside district terminals, some strikers shouted and swore at the drivers.
"Oh, I have been called every name in the book," said George Boyd, a trainee for three weeks, as he pulled into the entrance of the Santa Ana Transit Terminal on the Fullerton-Santa Ana route.
One striker shouted that Boyd should not be driving because he had only three weeks' experience with the district.
"I started driving buses when John F. Kennedy was president," Boyd shouted back. "I bet I got more experience than all of you combined."
Boyd said he does sympathize with the strikers but wanted to continue training to become a full time bus driver with the district.
"If I was a regular driver, I would be out there carrying a stick," said Boyd, 53, who had waited months for an OCTD driving position.
Latino, who began work at 5 a.m. Wednesday, said she has been called "scab" frequently during her three days on the job.
"It doesn't bother me at all," Latino said. "Right now, I want to keep the passengers happy. I feel useful doing this."
Latino said her driving has been "OK" and passengers have not complained.
"I haven't hit anything or anybody," Latino joked before she started a second trip to the Westminster Mall from the Santa Ana Transit Terminal. "I guess I'm doing fine."
Passenger Haddix said she had not known Latino was not the regular operator.
"I didn't know the difference until you (Latino) told me," she said. "You're not bad at all."
For latest developments in the Orange County Transit District strike, see Part II, Page 1.