Veteran B.C. Transit driver Joe Hronek expects to be disciplined one of these days for refusing to call out each of the estimated 500 stops on his daily routes as required by the company to serve visually impaired passengers.
The Colwood resident, who has 33 accident-free years out of 34, says the policy is unsafe and constitutes distracted driving, and that more than 100 other drivers share his view.
Tana MacKay, a workers’ advocate with 550-member Unifor Local 333 of Greater Victoria, agrees, saying the safety risk is “outrageous,” and that automated systems are the norm. Driving should be the operators’ only duty, as per WorkSafe B.C.’s own literature, she added.
The company disagrees. The policy has been “vetted by RoadSafety B.C. and WorkSafe B.C. and has shown no undue hazard,” said John Palmer, director of safety and environment, in an email to the Times Colonist.
Hronek calls the vetting decided in advance to “avoid a human rights lawsuit,” and says it was not concerned with safety. A human-rights complaint that blind riders were discriminated against was dismissed after B.C. Transit opted for call-outs.
Now it’s back on the table.
Lawyer Frances Kelly, of the Community Legal Assistance Society, wrote Sept. 30 to the B.C. Human Rights Clinic, saying: “Because stops are not being called out, blind passengers continue to suffer further discriminatory treatment and impeded access.”
Unless that changes, the society plans to file a new complaint. Kelly wrote that “immediate steps” to discipline drivers for not calling out stops are required.
In April, B.C. Transit backed off ordering drivers to use hand-held microphones to announce stops after union push-back. But there hasn’t been much compliance, said Elizabeth Lalonde, a past president of the Canadian Federation of the Blind and one of two people who made the human rights complaint.
Blind riders are stressed out, travelling on the edge of their seats because even drivers who say they’ll call a stop often forget, she said.
The federation has always preferred an automated system, but has been told it’s too costly.
An automated system would cost $1.2 million to $5 million, based on 250 to 300 buses in Greater Victoria, Palmer said Thursday, adding that a joint union-company committee is “actively researching technical solutions.”
On Friday, B.C. Transit posted an update to operators that said a potential automated system will be tried out in the next two to three weeks.
Meanwhile, drivers are expected to call out stops, Palmer said. “We are working to ensure that all reports of non-compliance are being addressed. We are investigating each incident individually.”
The current scenario is “extremely frustrating” for both drivers and the visually impaired, said union president Ben Williams, who wants to see an automated system and hopes for a mutually agreeable settlement.
Asked if calling out the stops is safe, Williams said he did not want to comment.
Blind riders do not want to cause hardship for drivers but should not have to feel guilty for having their rights respected, Lalonde said.
Bus drivers chat to people along their routes and Lalonde doesn’t understand why calling out stops is “such a big deal.”
Hronek considers both announcements and chatting to be distracting, although he says he will always call out stops that are requested. But forcing drivers to make hundreds of announcements a day puts passengers at risk by removing attention from surveillance of pedestrians, cyclists and cars backing out of driveways, Hronek said.
Hronek filed a complaint with WorkSafe B.C. but said the investigation was “inept” — the official who rode with him while he kept his eyes on the road explaining driving concerns later told him that a driver who could keep up such a running commentary could call out all stops safely.
Hronek responded that as a driver, he needs to be able to choose not to speak when the occasion demands.