Tuesday, April 21, 2015

St. Catharines Transit – Safe or Something Else?

Governments all over North America look to encourage greater use of their public transit systems. There are many motivators for the ease of letting someone else do the driving. In large cities, parking is no simple task and its cost not on the low side. Congestion on the roads and highways drives even a meek and mild individual towards road rage. Environmentally we just simply need to look at the statistics for air quality, the number of days warnings are posted relating to potential negative effects of breathing the heavy air, and gasp.

In Canada owning a car is as important to many as having a roof over their heads. Still, in large cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, the public transit systems are extensive with buses, street cars and trains. St. Catharines, Ontario is a smaller town with a population of approximately 132,000. Public transit came to St. Catharines on November 1st 1879, and has grown alongside the city.

Since 2013 there are some 20 bus routes, with an operating budget totaling $8,985,384 as of 2014. The St. Catharines Transit Commission's mission statement clearly states, “Our purpose is to provide a safe, courteous and reliable transit service which responds to the needs of our community.” Buses in St. Catharines are equipped with mechanical ramps to assist handicapped passengers with easy access for wheelchairs or scooters. Security cameras are located just above the driver and to his or her right. One is directed to the front door entry; the second down the length of the bus. A third camera is located at the rear and directed at the back door exit.

Safety is an issue that is of great importance both to the St. Catharines Transit Commission (SCTC) and the public. For such reasons a yellow line is clearly marked on the floor of the bus just past and behind the driver's seat. According to the SCTC riding tips website, “When a bus is full of passengers it is important for everyone's safety that passengers do not stand ahead of the yellow line. This will allow the Transit Operator to have a clear view of their surroundings.” Even common sense would make anyone understand that carrying a conversation with a driver immediately reduces response capability in case of an emergency. On newer buses there is a large black and white sign just above the driver and to the right which says, “For passenger safety Federal Law prohibits operation of the bus while anyone is standing forward of the yellow line,” if anyone is standing past that yellow line, one gets the drift there.

A Federal notice warning on a safety issue is placed in a position where it is obscured from full view on bus #9986.

Bus drivers in St. Catharines are considered Professional Bus Operators with knowledge of the rules and regulations that govern safety. Each of these drivers are paid very well and are responsible for the safety of every passenger on the bus, every passenger leaving the bus, and every passenger attempting to board the bus. It is irrelevant whether the passenger has any form of disability or not, that responsibility remains the same. For that reason the St. Catharines Transit Commission was one of the many respondents in the discussion paper “accessible transit services, Ontario,” conducted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Point 3.4.4, Integration of Conventional Transit Services, states “Typically, transit service providers developed accessibility initiatives in consultation with community organizations and users. Survey respondents reported on using a variety of combinations of the following strategies.” One of the strategies was number 5: “Improved barrier removal at bus stops, such as snow removal.”

In addition to taking part in the discussion paper conducted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the SCTC would find itself under the jurisdiction of the National Occupational Standards for Professional Bus Operators. These standards are developed by the Motor Carrier Passenger Council of Canada in partnership with Human Resources Development Canada (funded in part by the Government of Canada's Sector Council Program). There are many topics dissected and examined, from driver stress issues to the basic starting of an engine. It is Block B Vehicle Operations that is of particular interest.

Task 5 in Block B follows 'Safe Boarding and Exiting Procedures' with a context statement; “Professional Bus Operators pick up and drop off passengers. Some do this constantly, others less often, but all must ensure that their passengers board and exit safely. This includes: enforcing safe boarding and exiting procedures and ensuring all passengers are on board and secure before departing from the stop.”

This section then breaks up into a 'sub-task' format with 5.01 being “pulls into stop” then 5.01.04 “ability to recognise potential hazards.” Now 5.02: “ensures all door areas are clear” with 5.02.04 “ability to check stairwell for snow and debris build-up.” Then finally sub-task 5.06 “monitors stop areas” and followed by 5.06.02, “ability to constantly monitor stop area for changing conditions.” The position and role of a Professional Bus Operator has responsibilities, accepts no excuses and carries a monetary package that is comfortable and secure. Professional Bus Operators also have the power to impact an individual, a total stranger, for life.

An incident on March 8th 2015 proved this last comment to a frightening reality. A young woman would catch the first bus on Route 11 a little after 6:00 am. During the winter months she would stand there with a small flashlight in hand, waving it so the driver could not claim to miss her. On this one morning her life had been changed forever through the indifference of a 'Professional' Bus Operator of the St. Catharines Transit Commission.

February was a particularly bad month with record low temperatures and heavy snow falls. The bus stop on Glendale Avene just past Bessey Street, had a wall of ice standing some two feet high. This ice was built up from the City snowplough cleaning the sidewalk and the larger ones that clean the roads. Attached to the wall of ice was a sheet of ice several inches thick.

On the morning of March 8th 2015, the number 11 bus was pulled up alongside the ice. Less than a foot from the sheet of ice was a clean and clear driveway. The young woman at first made an attempt to go on top of the ice to get onto the bus. It was too dangerous so she stepped back down to the sidewalk. She then tried to get around the wall of ice. She asked the driver to move the bus forward. The driver ignored her. As she tried to reach for the yellow handle on the door, she fell. In that one moment a 22 year old's life was changed forever.

This young woman collapsed onto the platform of the bus. Her ankle was completely shattered. Her ankle bone protruding through to the right. In agony she sat on the platform of the bus waiting for the EMS to arrive.

The Mayor's Advisory Committee on Accessibility (MACOA) has an Accessibility Plan for the City of St. Catharines 2013 – 2015. That Accessibility Plan at Appendix B, page 36 under sub-heading titled 'Barriers to Access at St. Catharines Transit' states for Shelters and Stops: “Approaches; clearing snow and ice from major bus stops and shelters is undertaken, however this cannot be accomplished instantaneously.” It also delves into issues relating to the handicapped and the measures the city plans to take in providing accessibility to government services.

Whether one reads all the points from the Ontario Human Rights Commission's discussion paper or the National Occupational Standards for Professional Bus Operators, on that morning it was all a farce. The MACOA can play whatever game they like, the snow and ice had never been cleaned on the Glendale route, nor for that matter anywhere else in Merritton or Secord Woods etc. At this bus stop where the young woman fell, a handicapped blind individual regularly catches the bus. Many regular drivers on Route 11 know his name, where does that leave the MACOA? Aside from the farcical reality of the Accessibility Plan, not 60 feet from this bus stop a senior has City crews clean her sidewalk and driveway. Somewhat difficult for City to hide behind the usual excuse of ignorance.

On March 11th a letter had been delivered to Mayor Walter Sendzik. Details of the situation had been provided. Mayor Sendzik did not see the need to even make a phony attempt to console the family. Mayor Walter Sendzik ignored the young woman and her family, he simply handed the letter over to the City Solicitor's office. After all there is no election and a 22 year old is not as important as some land development or sports event.

Surgery was completed some four days after the fall. Nine screws had to be placed on one side and two pins on the other. The surgeon made it clear that osteoarthritis would set in before this woman reaches her 30th birthday. Potential back and hip complications could require further surgery in her 40s. In the meantime she is unable to work for months, adding immense financial stress on her and her family. Lawyers in injury law ask one major question; could this have been prevented? In this case the answer is a resounding yes!

The St. Catharines Transit Commission and the City Insurers are going to try and depict bus drivers as diligent and caring individuals. They will claim passenger safety is their major concern and that they abide by all professional standards. Here I will take your attention back to the St. Catharines Transit Commission's own website and the issue of safety and the yellow line. Now take a look at this photo!

This driver has his wife or girlfriend stand up almost next to him each and every time she is on the bus. On the day this photo was taken the driver's face and that of his friend was kept out but they can be identified. It was on route 11 and the photo taken on March 19th 2015 at 10:44 am. The bus was on route to downtown and the bus stop which the photographer entered the bus was at Merritt Street and Glendale Ave. Surprisingly it was one of the newest buses and above their heads was the federal regulation. Maybe the St. Catharines Transit Commission will find a few extra bucks and ensure that all their buses display this sign. On the other hand it would be a waste of public money as this is not the only driver who happily breaks the regulations, and this is not the only woman who stands and talks to the driver non-stop.

The incident that happened on March 8th was absolutely preventable. A 22 year old's life will now change forever. All the discussion papers, mayor's advisory committees and government agencies are worthless. In fact Mayor Walter Sendzik displayed no care whatsoever. Insurers for the City of St. Catharines have already began to play out their game, or at least an attempt was made. Security cameras on the bus will clearly show where the door was opened and the indifference of a driver to any and all regulations relating to safety.

This driver carries on a running conversation with a passenger.

Look at the rear view mirror of the bus (zoom in for detailed view) and where the driver is looking!
For now this young woman and her family need to concern themselves with recovery and adjusting to a different life. The Transit Commission and the City will try to plan a defense that might sound plausible. Yet this is also a time to stop the hypocrisy and act in a responsible manner. This hell cannot be permitted to happen again. Drivers must face the consequences of their actions when they ignore the regulations. It is public money that keeps any transit authority operational, whether through government grants or paid fairs. The public has the right to demand a service that is both efficient and safe.