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Bus Drivers Ordered to Buckle Up

MTA officials hail an arbitrator's ruling, which takes effect immediately. Some operators aren't embracing the decision.

November 17, 2005|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

In a decision sending bus drivers across Los Angeles County scrambling to buckle up, an arbitrator has decreed that they must wear seat belts while on the job, officials said Wednesday.

The ruling, reached after months of meetings between the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the United Transportation Union, applies to thousands of local bus drivers and settles what had been a hotly disputed area of the law.

California law does not require transit bus drivers to buckle up, but the MTA -- as an employer -- has the right to mandate a reasonable safety rule, arbitrator Howard Block said in a written opinion. "The evidence is clear that operators are more likely to be seriously injured without a seat belt, and sometimes lose control of their buses because they are ejected from their seat during a collision."

MTA officials hailed Block's decision and said they would order drivers to buckle up immediately.

"It's a victory for our customers and employees," said John Catoe, deputy chief executive at the MTA. "Studies have shown throughout the country that seat belts save lives."

But some Metro drivers -- even as they grudgingly agreed to comply -- said seat belts make them uncomfortable and feel unsafe.

"It's a hazard," said Alfredo Gonzales, who drives buses between downtown Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley. In his 32 years as a bus driver, he said, he has had to defend himself from assault and getting spit on by riders. "When you're sitting here tied down by a seat belt, anyone can hit you in the face. You're like a sitting duck."

The MTA is following in the footsteps of many transportation agencies across California, some of which have been requiring their employees to buckle up for more than a decade.

Transit operators that require seat belt use include those in Orange County, the Antelope Valley, Santa Monica, Riverside, San Bernardino and Sacramento.

When Catoe joined the MTA in 2001, he assumed that the nation's second-largest transit agency also had a mandatory seat belt rule. It was only after he reviewed some accidents to determine what went wrong that he realized -- to his surprise -- that the agency left it up to drivers to decide.

The accidents included a 1996 chain-reaction crash on the Hollywood Freeway in which an MTA bus was hit by a Honda, knocking the unbelted driver out of his seat. The bus hurtled over the center divider and into oncoming traffic; the resulting collision killed two people and injured seven.

Last year, a bus driver trying to turn a corner in Pasadena tumbled out of the seat and onto the floor, causing the runaway 15-ton vehicle to crash into several cars and damage a building.

But the MTA could not implement a seat belt rule right away. The straps, which measured about 5 feet long at the time, were too short to comfortably wrap around some drivers' girth.

Last year, the agency began retrofitting every driver's seat in its 2,500 buses with 6-foot straps.

"We put in seat belts to fit everybody's size," Catoe said.

Last November, after all the buses were retrofitted and the MTA tried to impose a seat belt rule, the drivers union took the agency to court to block enforcement.

Union officials contended that the rule violated their collective bargaining agreement. They also disagreed with MTA management, which decreed that not wearing a seat belt would be a "major infraction" that -- coupled with other offenses -- could result in a driver's being fired. The union believes the violation constitutes a minor infraction that should result only in a notation to a driver's personnel file.

In his opinion, Block left it up to the MTA and the union to negotiate whether a failure to buckle up should be a major or minor violation.

Regardless of the penalty, union officials "have advised our members that [wearing a seat belt] is now required," said Goldy Norton, spokesman for the union that represents nearly 5,000 bus and train operators.

On Wednesday, some drivers fretted over the ruling.

"We hate it, all of us, because it leaves you vulnerable," said Anita Allen-Roberts, whose route is on the new Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley. "But if they made it official, of course I'll start wearing my seat belt."

Others say using a safety belt is really no big deal.

"If this is what they say we have to do, so be it," said driver Yvonne Bruemmer, who began buckling up last year after hearing about an unbelted colleague falling out of the driver's seat and losing control.

"Maybe seat belts aren't a bad idea, not just for passenger safety but also for the safety of drivers. Like everything new, you just adapt to it," Bruemmer said.

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