Read the original story here in The Oregonian.
As a member of the TriMet's board of directors, Steve Clark knew that the transit agency – like most in the U.S. – was working overtime into shifts and trying to deal with chronic absenteeism.
But Clark said he was shocked to read that many bus drivers are fattening their paychecks by working up to 22 hours in a 24-hour period.
"I had no idea that the problems were this extensive," Clark said Wednesday, referring to The Oregonian's investigation into TriMet driver fatigue published Sunday.
During their first meeting since the story, board members appeared shell-shocked by its revelations, including at least 21 reports of operators nodding off behind the wheel in the past 3 1/2 years.
But Clark was the most outspoken, saying it was time to eliminate the word "try" when addressing serious public safety issues.
"My comments aren't to bawl you out," Clark told General Manager Neil McFarlane during a measured exchange. But, he said, there needs to be immediate fixes, with or without the help of the driver's union.
Safety, he said, needs to be the rule, "not an aspiration."
Now, after years of resistance, Amalgamated Transit Union 757, the driver's union, appears ready to accept TriMet's invitation to discuss new limits on hours. Bruce Hansen, ATU president, said the two sides don't need to wait until formal negotiations on the next contract, which have been bogged down over public access.
"We're open to doing this soon," Hansen said. Asked what concessions the union might ask, he said, "I'm not willing to talk about that."
Adding urgency to the situation: A new Portland State University study of 210 TriMet drivers showing fatigue is by far the biggest safety risk.
Long shifts, the drivers told researchers, beat out vehicle designs, route layout and stress, according to the findings, which are scheduled to be presented next week to the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C.
The study also found that 45.2 percent of TriMet drivers encounter a close call with another vehicle, a pedestrian or a bicyclist about once every workday.
"Fatigue is a concern across the transit industry," said lead researcher James Strathman, director of PSU's Center for Urban Studies. "Usually, it goes hand in hand with stress. Some of it is a manifestation of high absenteeism and operator health."
At the same time, long bus shifts may actually be less hazardous when the extra hours are voluntary, the research shows.
In fiscal year 2012, eight bus drivers engineered schedules that allowed them to make more than $100,000, including one who made nearly $117,000 in fiscal year 2012.
McFarlane, who makes $221,450 a year, said it's hard to see how anyone ferrying riders for 20, 21 or even 22 hours with little or no rest -- as The Oregonian found -- is considered safe. Without a deal with the union, McFarlane told the board TriMet would likely need to ask the Legislature to help. But, he said, "the best result is always through negotiation."
After the meeting, Clark said he believes the agency has the authority – and an obligation – to move forward on its own.
"We're not addressing someone's right to work," he said. "We're addressing the alarming number of hours they're working."
Likewise, David Sale, father of one of the two women killed by a TriMet bus making an illegal turn in Portland in April 2010, stood up to say the safety of riders and anyone who finds themselves in the path of a 16-ton bus shouldn't be up for negotiation.
"Doctors don't have to parley with unions on safety rules," Sale said after the meeting. "Rules for pilots and long-haul drivers aren't negotiated through a union. There are strict limits on how long they can and can't work. Why are public transit bus drivers any different?"
Currently, federal regulations strictly limiting the hours a railroad engineer, truck driver, charter bus operator or airline pilot can work without rest don't apply to public transit workers.
The state only regulates shifts worked by light-rail operators. TriMet, through collective bargaining with ATU 757, is allowed to come up with its own scheduling rules for bus drivers.
But in a memo to staff earlier this week, McFarlane said The Oregonian's investigation exposed "glaring" shortcomings in the current policy. He called for an internal audit of overtime and how it may contribute to driver fatigue.
TriMet officials have proposed, among other things, limiting drivers to 14 hours on the clock each service day and finding ways to prevent regular shifts with less than nine hours off.
McFarlane told the board that the new MAP-21 transportation law could also solve the problems. The law, signed by President Barack Obama last summer, gives the Federal Transit Administration the authority to require transit agencies receiving funding to develop stricter safety guidelines.
McFarlane said new regulations would likely mandate stricter limits on hours worked and more hours of rest between shifts for transit bus drivers.
However, Brian Farber, an FTA spokesman, said new fatigue-fighting regulations are for bus drivers aren't guaranteed. A MAP-21 safety oversight authority is in the early stages of its work, he said.
"While we certainly will be looking into issues of fatigue and hours of service," Farber said, "no decisions have been made as of yet regarding any regulatory actions in this area."
One of the biggest problems at TriMet: So-called "doublebacks," allowing TriMet bus drivers – who are prohibited from working more than 17 hours during a service day – to manipulate the rules, often by trading shifts, to make overtime.
Under the current policy, an operator could conceivably work 17 hours until 2 a.m. at the end of one service day and then clock back in at 4 a.m. to work another 17 hours.
However, according to the PSU study, TriMet drivers see the agency's use of split shifts as a bigger risk than doubleback shifts in the middle of the night.
On any given day, about 40 percent of drivers work split shifts, usually getting up early to drive the morning rush and then waiting several hours to work the evening rush. TriMet said it provides cots and a quiet room for drivers who want to rest during their downtime.
However, an operator decision to volunteer four extra hours, the study found, "has what is known as a 'selection effect' on safety risk."
Translation: "The safety risks of fatigue are somewhat mitigated when hours worked are voluntarily chosen."
Sale doesn't buy it. "These drivers work in an extremely intense environment," he said. "They can't be operating on fumes when they have to scan for pedestrians, customers, bicyclists and vehicles around them."