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Port Authority bus drivers' extra hours under study

Tom Fontaine
| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:59 a.m.
Pennsylvania State Police are investigating whether Port Authority bus drivers are working marathon shifts behind the wheel.                           
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania State Police are investigating whether Port Authority bus drivers are working marathon shifts behind the wheel. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Port Authority of Allegheny County gets about a 22 percent share of the statewide funding for transit.
Port Authority of Allegheny County gets about a 22 percent share of the statewide funding for transit.
Steve Bland, Port Authority CEO
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Steve Bland, Port Authority CEO

Port Authority of Allegheny County officials say drivers routinely work marathon shifts in which they're on the clock for up to 16 hours, a practice the Pennsylvania State Police calls illegal and dangerous.

“I certainly have concerns about that. We're going to want to get them pointed in the right direction,” said state police Sgt. Robert Krol, who supervises the bureau's commercial-vehicle safety division.

Krol said state law prohibits transit drivers from driving more than 10 hours or working more than 15 hours in any capacity at a given time. Drivers should not exceed 70 hours in a seven-day stretch.

“It has been Port Authority's understanding and belief over the past several decades that public transit agencies in Pennsylvania are exempt from complying with laws or regulations pertaining to hours of service,” spokesman Jim Ritchie said, adding he does not recall any citations on the issue.

Port Authority bus and light-rail drivers were involved in 138 crashes causing injuries or significant vehicle or property damage in the span from December 2011 through November, according to agency data. Ritchie said reports show driver fatigue or overwork was not to blame in any of the wrecks.

“We're not seeing fatigue as a problem at Port Authority, and we're not finding it to be a cause of any of our more serious accidents,” Ritchie said. “But going forward, if laws are created to regulate operator time, we're certainly going to abide by it and support it.”

It's unclear what impact regulations such as a 10-hour driving time restriction would have on the cash-strapped Port Authority, given the possibility that it could need to hire drivers to meet service demands.

Last year, the agency used emergency state and local funding, fare increases and sweeping labor concessions to close a projected $64 million deficit in its $370 million operating budget.

“It's hard to predict,” Ritchie said.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 President Steve Palonis, who represents the agency's 1,300 bus and light-rail drivers, said drivers put in long hours on a regular basis and rack up big paydays through overtime. Seventy-nine drivers pulled in more than $80,000 in wages last year, with base salaries of about $52,000. Fourteen drivers made more than $100,000, agency records show.

Each division has about 40 drivers on its “extra” boards. They are used to fill gaps in service that could be caused by another driver's absence or other reasons.

Palonis said it's not uncommon for drivers to put in regular shifts of eight or nine hours and then be told by a supervisor to work an additional five or six hours — or be “plussed” up to 14 hours.

“When they start plussing people, these people are tired. (Supervisors) say it's part of the contract, and if drivers don't go out, they can be disciplined,” Palonis said.

Supervisors can chalk up refusals as unexcused absences, and four such incidents could result in firing, Palonis said. He could recall people being written up, but not fired, for the offense.

At the same time, Palonis said, many people volunteer to be on extra boards because it offers opportunity to rack up overtime pay.

Palonis said some drivers work regular eight-hour shifts, then “double out” to 16 hours.

“That's brutal,” he said, noting he once worked such shifts.

The ATU labor contract stipulates that drivers must have eight hours off between regularly scheduled shifts.

“If drivers are working 14 hours or more on a regular basis, then I have a real concern about safety issues. I don't know why people are so reluctant to take fatigued driving seriously,” said sleep expert Timothy H. Monk, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Driving for 16 hours could produce “about the same level of impairment as one might get from drinking five cans out of a six-pack of beer,” Monk said.

High-profile airline and tour-bus crashes in recent years prompted federal authorities to crack down on fatigue in those industries, but federal regulators have not pumped the brakes on transit agencies that do not cross state lines.

In fact, a 1964 law prohibited the Federal Transit Administration from developing and enforcing even basic local transit safety rules, such as hours-of-service restrictions that are commonplace in other transportation sectors. A patchwork of state laws filled the void; the Pennsylvania Code includes sections that deal with requirements for local transit agencies.

Congress passed a two-year, $105 billion transportation funding bill last summer that gives the FTA authority to oversee safety at transit systems.

“FTA is in the early stages of implementing this safety oversight authority,” spokesman Brian Farber said in a statement, adding that it would consider uniform fatigue and hours-of-service rules. He did not know when any rules might take effect.

Krol said Pennsylvania's rules “have been in place for more than 20 years.”

Inspectors conducted 66 safety inspections of Port Authority since Jan. 1, 2010, Krol said. Eighteen of them involved drivers, none of whom was cited for an hours-of-service violation, he said.

Krol noted that drivers who operate vehicles within 100 miles of their garage — as Port Authority drivers do — are not required to keep written logs of their hours unless they exceed 12 hours of service at a given time.

“When you don't have a log book to look at, if the driver knows the right answer to give, they're good to go. We don't pull a driver's timecard” during standard on-site inspections, though agency records can be reviewed in crash investigations, he said.

Krol said he intends to contact Port Authority officials about long shifts. He said it's unlikely state police would investigate any past violations of hours-of-service rules.

“My main concern is for them to come into compliance from this point forward. Our goal is to reduce the risk of crashes,” Krol said.

Ritchie said the agency would “take a closer look at the issue,” and, “if we are advised to comply by the state police or another regulatory agency, we will promptly take steps to implement a compliant program,” adding a fatigued-driving awareness program is part of the training for all new hires and is offered to veteran drivers.

“We've always been under the understanding that we have been exempt from the regulations for hours of service,” said Scott Sauer, director of system safety and risk management at Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

SEPTA has regulations that limit drivers from putting in more than 18 total hours — consecutive or through a split shift — in a single day or 30 hours over a two-day period.

“We'll be joining Port Authority in looking more closely at this,” Sauer said, noting SEPTA audits its 3,000 drivers' hours weekly and has a computer system that flags anyone who puts in more than 15 in a single day.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer

for Trib Total Media. He can

be reached at 412-320-7847


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