Union says overdue break contributed to fatality

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

TriMet bus operator Diane Boothe may have been in a hurry to take a restroom break when she was crushed to death by her bus on Nov. 2, 2004.

It was the first such fatality ever to occur at TriMet, and the first, too, among members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, which represents the drivers.

Boothe was six minutes late when she pulled her Number 62 bus into the Sunset Transit Center in Beaverton two minutes before noon. An Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division (OR-OSHA) investigation found that Boothe, a 27-year veteran, left the bus running in forward gear and failed to properly set the park brake. Failure to set the brake should have set off a loud alarm when she left her seat, but it appears the alarm failed. Boothe walked in front of the bus, reached in the driver’s window to pull a lever to close the doors, and then walked back across the front of the bus on her way to the restroom. Tri-Met buses are equipped with a special brake that keeps the bus from moving when the doors are open. So when Boothe closed the door, the brakes were released after a one-and-a-half-second delay, and the bus struck her, pinned her to a bus stop sign and killed her instantly.

OR-OSHA’s investigation concluded the accident was caused by operator error.

The union maintains an overdue restroom break may have contributed.

More than a year prior, Local 757 had complained to TriMet about inadequate restroom facilities and not enough time for breaks.

“The company will tell you ‘we allow drivers to stop any time.’ ” said Local 757 president Al Zullo.

But Zullo said drivers care about passengers and don’t want to make them late. Also, it could be highly embarrassing to stop and run into a convenience store or restaurant. Drivers who do sometimes face ridicule from passengers. And drivers worry about complaints from passengers. When a bus is late, passengers are more likely to find fault with the driver’s conduct.

Boothe herself was an active union member and a participant in the union's “Take A Break” campaign. In her memory, TriMet drivers donned yellow drop-shaped pins, symbolizing their demand to be given an opportunity to take restroom breaks without inconveniencing their passengers.

Boothe isn’t around to give her account of what happened the day of her accident. But hundreds of bus drivers surveyed by the union report that an inability to take restroom breaks is a serious problem. Of the 700 members responding to a Local 757 survey on restroom breaks, 650 said their schedules are too tight to allow adequate restroom breaks; 580 said they’d been distracted while driving because of the need to use the restroom; and 289 said they spent too much time in their seat without a break.

Drivers wrote that they had to urinate in alleys, behind bushes, and in bottles; that they were unable to hold it long enough; and that they would sometimes speed in order to have time to use the restroom. Most worrisome, says Local 757 staff attorney Susan Stoner, is that a majority of drivers reported that they habitually “hold it” and deliberately restrict fluids to avoid having to use the restroom.

Those are measures that lead directly to serious health consequences, Stoner said, from incontinence to prostate problems to urinary tract infections. Limiting liquids can also exacerbate diabetes and other health conditions.

“These folks are every day dehydrating themselves,” Stoner said. “That’s one of the reasons there are so many health problems among bus drivers.”

Proving the health problems are caused by work conditions, however, has not been easy. But several years ago, OR-OSHA did recognize that breaks are necessary for health.

And recently, the union’s plan to bargain for breaks got a boost from Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner. His agency ruled that transit workers are not excluded from the requirement to give workers breaks. Because of the ruling, Zullo said, if TriMet and the union can't come to agreement on how to handle breaks, Tri-Met could face fines of up to $1,000 per instance.

Zullo has the basic outline of an agreement in mind: “The only solution to the problem is to build in extra time on the route.”