Who disciplines redlight-running Cap Metro bus drivers?

Capital Metro bus runs a redlight.
Capital Metro bus runs a redlight.

AUSTIN (KXAN)  – A KXAN Investigation reveals Austin transit bus drivers continue to run red lights five years after the city first installed Red Light Cameras at various intersections.

The trend has emerged despite ongoing company and union safety awareness initiatives and the evolution of disciplinary measures for drivers as part of a recent collaboration with private  contractors.

“When you’re rolling the dice like that, sooner or later you’re going to hit craps,” said Kevin Lee a 49 year-old Austinite who says he relies on the bus to get him to doctor’s appointments and daily errands.

Lee said he’s seen drivers run yellow lights and go through an intersection as the light turns red.

City Red Light Camera data show much more — forty-nine Capital Metro buses or paratransit vehicles running red lights over a period of five years in all manner of weather and times of day. One driver was cited twice in the same day after his bus was caught on the same camera, data show.

Paratransit-type vehicles which carry the elderly and disabled also appear on the city red light cameras on several occasions.

The City of Austin installed the cameras at 10 intersections in 2009 in a bid to reduce the number of traffic fatalities.

Are disciplinary measures working?

Bus drivers themselves must pay the $75 red light camera citations from Municipal Court that are sent to Capital Metro which in turn hands them to its bus contractors.

If that’s not incentive enough to obey traffic laws, the drivers often also receive retraining or other more major discipline depending on the policy of the seven private transit companies Capital Metro has contracted with since August 2012.  Prior to the outsourcing, Capital Metro’s driver arm, StarTrans would typically dock a driver’s pay for a day, KXAN first reported in 2010.

Today, company managers say there is a range of discipline. Staff can review the red light video with a driver and go over retraining options.

As well, penalties included in labor contracts can be more severe.

“With recklessness for example, first offense could be termination…if we feel (the violation) was reckless and (showed) disregard for appropriate safety,” said Steve Keiper, GM of McDonald Transit which employs about two thirds of Capital Metro’s 945 drivers.

The head of the union representing Capital Metro’s drivers blames shorter training times and higher turnover for the ongoing issue with red light running.

“Five years ago (before outsourcing) you had more seasoned drivers with more longevity with the company who would’ve probably been paying more attention to the red lights than some of the new operators,” said Jay Wyatt, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union, local 1091.

Keiper with McDonald Transit counters that statement, saying most of his drivers have average 11 years’ experience on the road in Austin.

Capital Metro by the Numbers

  • 113,425 people got on board every weekday
  • They waited at nearly 3,000 bus stops
  • along 92 routes
  • And rode one of 390 buses or 150 paratransit vehicles

To enhance that experience level, Capital Metro staff say safety officers meet drivers on their routes and spot violations and potential bad driver habits. They even hand out safety trivia cards offering small prizes to drivers who come up with correct answers. As well, Capital Metro and company reps have regular safety review meetings to go over accidents and problem spots.

And KXAN learned just last week, Capital Metro board members intend to begin all future monthly meetings with a safety review presentation. One agency committee member believes that decision comes due to KXAN’s Investigation.

Of the 49 red light incidents involving Capital Metro, more than a dozen happened after the contractors took over. Six of those involved McDonald Transit drivers.

“They know not to do that. They know they’re going to be guilty,” said Steve Keiper.

Keiper told KXAN his new drivers receive 240 hours of training before they get their own route.

The union’s Jay Wyatt said that’s not enough time for drivers to familiarize themselves with the route and says Capital Metro’s private contractors are rushing workers onto the front line.

“You’re setting up a situation where you’re creating a safety problem,” said Wyatt.

“If you’re not familiar with what you’re doing, you’re driving a big vehicle out there, chances are you’re open for mistakes,” he said, adding union reps will often remind drivers to keep their phones away, and their eyes on the road among other safety advice.

So if both the union and company leaders are safety conscious, why are some drivers still choosing to run red lights? It could come down to accountability.

Safety Partnerships

The shift to contract-based busing since 2012 has meant establishing what Capital Metro’s risk assessment manager calls ‘safety partnerships’ with these third party contractors each of whom brings their own safety as well as disciplinary policies to the table.

It’s also meant a taking in different management styles and cultures. “So an attempt has been made to standardize them when it comes to safety issues.

“We review their accidents – every single accident they have as a matter of fact,” said Donna Simmons, Capital Metro’s Risk Assessment Manager.

“The contractor rules on every accident as either preventable or non-preventable which is a very high standard. It’s a much higher standard than being ‘at fault’ for example. It’s a standard that’s established by the National Safety Council to determine whether the driver did everything reasonable to prevent the accident from happening,” Simmons said.

The cost of preventable red light bus collisions

Any accident has its cost of course. Records requested from Capital Metro show liability and damage claim payouts in red light collisions involving transit drivers totaled $205,544.89 in four claims since 2009.

One in June 2009 involved a MetroAccess bus and injured one person. The payout was $130,000, Capital Metro records show.

Then two, relatively minor, incidents in January 2013 involved drivers for McDonald Transit; no one was A Jan 18, 2013, incident at Grove Boulevard and Riverside Drive, was the driver’s first incident. He has since been retrained. A second driver was fired following a Jan. 29, 2013 Congress Avenue and 7th Street, staff confirmed in an email.

Data also show the fourth red light collision was recorded Feb. 19th 2014 at Guadalupe and 12th St. after a McDonald Transit driver turned right on a red and ‘made contact’ with a second vehicle. No one was hurt.

For comparison, the data also show 13 motorists collided with Capital Metro vehicles in the same five-year time period after running red lights.

In the first three months of this fiscal year beginning October 2013, Capital Metro recorded 242 accidents:

  • 221 deemed minor, no injury, damages less than $25,000
  • 21 deemed critical, severe injury, damages $25,000-$100,000

That’s on track to approach last fiscal year’s total of 507 collisions in which 461 or 91% were deemed minor with the other 46 considered critical.

Among the Safest

Capital Metro also sent KXAN a National Transit database list of the safest transit agencies in America. In 2012, Capital Metro was in the top five safest on a list of 14 based on the number of collisions per 100,000 miles traveled.

“If you’re not familiar with what you’re doing, you’re driving a big vehicle out there, chances are you’re open for mistakes”— Jay Wyatt

The collision rate data show Capital Metro was just behind the Kansas City Area Transit Authority and ahead of the Charlotte Area Transit System. The best on the list in 2012 was the Denver Regional Transportation District.

In fiscal year 2013 to March 2014, Capital Metro reported its buses were involved in 67 serious, or critical, accidents. The bus driver was issued a moving violation in only one of those incidents. Capital Metro officals tell KXAN that in that case, the bus rolled forward and the bike rack bumped into another vehicle.

“We will continue to analyze our accident trends, continue to stress retraining, continue to stress to our existing drivers and new drivers that that is not behavior that we would ever want them to exhibit,” Simmons told KXAN.

For bus rider Kevin Lee, he sees the red light camera data – those four dozen citations to various drivers over five years as a small sample of the decisions bus drivers are faced with every day.

“You’re looking at thousands a year, this is (happening) every day. They’re trying to catch up with the time, they’re behind, but it’s not worth it,” he said before boarding his bus to take him downtown with a friend.

Unhappy Customers

We asked Capital Metro how many driver complaints they get annually. In 2013 there were more than 1200 ‘hazardous operation’ complaints. This year so far, about 300 have been made. Complaints can be submitted online here.

Caught on Camera

You can use the table below to look up red light violations by Capital Metro vehicles. Visit photonotice.com and input the citation number, license plate number and city code “Austin” to watch footage of the violations.

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