Home Asides Behind-the-wheel texting as a non-fireable offense

Behind-the-wheel texting as a non-fireable offense

by Benjamin Kabak

In the State of New York, it is illegal to use a handheld phone while driving. Since the start of this month, it has also been illegal to text while behind the wheel. Luckily for one New York City Transit bus driver, he got caught texting while driving before the Nov. 1 ban went into effect. So that means this bus driver gets to keep his job, right? Well, what if I told you he subsequently hit and killed a pedestrian crossing the street? What if I told you this bus drivers had been suspended for texting but was not fired despite Transit’s wishes? Rather, the arbitrator in this labor dispute decided to send the driver to what the Daily News called “driver safety and customer service training courses.”

Today, in the wake of this tragedy, the Daily News editorial staff wonders why Transit does not have the power to fire a driver caught on the phone. It is a very good question. According to the editorial, 108 drivers were “disciplined for using phones.” Already this year, due to increased enforcement efforts, that number is up to 170, and the News urges a sensible brightline policy: “More enforcement won’t amount to anything until a zero-tolerance standard is set: If you use a cell or text while in command of a bus, you will never drive for the TA again.” Sounds about right to me.

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Working Class November 10, 2009 - 12:18 pm

The pedestrian ran out in front of the bus and got hit. The driver was found to have done nothing wrong it was just a tragic accident so what is the problem?

Boris November 10, 2009 - 12:29 pm

The problem is that in other types of “accidents”, people are held liable. When the cranes fell on people who “ran out in front of a crane” there were manslaughter charges. That’s what involuntary manslaughter is- someone’s death due to not taking proper care to avoid death, and in most jurisdictions it’s a punishable offense.

What we have in New York is a double standard- one type of punishment for drivers (none at all) and another, much harsher punishment for other types of workers who deal with heavy machinery.

AK November 10, 2009 - 12:36 pm

Working Class, I believe you are missing the forest for the trees. Ben’s point is that there should be a zero-tolerance, bright-line approach to talking/texting behind the wheel. I couldn’t agree more. The obvious reason is safety. The more interesting reason is the future of collective bargaining.

The Union, by fighting to make sure dangerous drivers can return to work, is selling out the majority of its membership which consists of conscientious and safe drivers/conductors. Given that the Union is already unpoopular enough for its efforts to increase wages/benefits during the greatest economic crisis in 70 years, the least the Union could do is realize the public relations catastrophe that comes with defending texters. It is truly akin to defending drivers who drink while on the job, as the federal government has studies showing texting while driving is, in fact, MORE dangerous than drinking and driving. The whole situation reminds me of the Major League Baseball Players Union’s stance against steroids and testing, which was a debacle for the Union’s membership and has created a cloud of doubt over the entire era. Clean players should have stood up and demanded a stronger stance. In the same vein, safe drivers should stand up and demand a non-nonsense policy about texting/talking behind the wheel.

Texting while driving caused a massive crash in Boston earlier this year and the Union was pummelled in the court of public opinion for its support of the driver. See: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,520243,00.html

My concern, as an American who believes in the importance of unions and collective bargaining generally, is that if unions continue to shoot themselves in the feet by opposing policies that are no-brainers and that are in the best interests of their memberships, the few unions still remaining will be crushed (again, at least as far as public opinion goes).

john November 10, 2009 - 12:39 pm

Is there a PAC I can pay money to that will fight to dissolve the TWU? I really can’t imagine a single way in which they could earn any of my sympathy at this point…

Scott E November 10, 2009 - 1:26 pm

I think Working Class has a point here. Perhaps the reprimand and the safety/sensitivity “training” he received a few weeks ago was too lenient. But in this particular case, the driver appeared to be driving responsibly (no cell phone usage), and it’s certainly conceivable that the victim ran out from in front of a parked car, as the reports state, and was hit. It very easily could have been a different bus driver, with a sparkling clean record, driving the same route on that same street and coming to the same tragic result. To look for a correlation between this incident and the earlier one which got him in trouble isn’t fair.

Working Class November 10, 2009 - 1:45 pm

This is the point I was trying to make. Thank you for making it alot more clearly.

There is NO correlation between this incident and the last one that this B/O had. In the first one he was wrong and was punished in the second he wasn’t wrong and was not punished.

AK November 10, 2009 - 1:54 pm

I understood that. But I think that point shrinks from teh broader policy question: should there be a zero-tolerance policy for drivers who text/talk while driving? I think the answer is yes, for safety and collective bargaining reasons. What do you think?

Working Class November 10, 2009 - 2:08 pm

If they collectively bargain for changes to the disciplinary actions for B/O’s I would have no problem with that. The TA is new yorks most heavy handed disciplinary agency already though.

Benjamin Kabak November 10, 2009 - 1:58 pm

…in the second he wasn’t wrong and was not punished.

So what you’re saying is that a bus driver who is turning from 53rd onto 9th Ave. — seemingly with the light which means that pedestrians crossing 9th have the light — and hits and kills someone isn’t doing anything wrong? That’s a pretty outrageous claim to make. Not yielding to pedestrians in a crosswalk who are crossing with the light is doing something wrong, as is killing someone by hitting them.

Working Class November 10, 2009 - 2:05 pm

I wasn’t there I am just going by what the article said. If there was any reason to he would have been brought up on charges but the driver wasn’t. Both pedestrians and other drivers give NYC buses no respect.

Andrew November 11, 2009 - 10:35 pm

The article that I saw said that Mr. Kahn was running to catch the light.

In other words, he still had the light.

In other words, Mr. Philhower was legally obligated to yield to Mr. Kahn. Not only did he fail to yield, he struck and killed him.

Of course, these articles don’t always state the actual facts, since it’s difficult to determine the actual facts. Mr. Philhower, of course, could give his side of the story. But Mr. Kahn wasn’t around anymore to provide his.

Scott E November 10, 2009 - 2:17 pm

Based on what you’ve stated, I can’t say whether the driver is or is not wrong. Pedestrians also have to use caution and shouldn’t run in front of moving buses. When I’m driving (a car, not a bus), I do all I can not to hit anything or anyone. But once, a small animal (cat, squirrel, not sure) darted in front of my car and unfortunately I hit it. I felt horrible about that, but if someone accused me of driving carelessly, I’d surely get pretty angry and defensive.

Benjamin Kabak November 10, 2009 - 3:08 pm

Hitting a person in a crosswalk who has the light isn’t quite the same as hitting a small animal that darted in front of your car. Not even close.

Scott E November 10, 2009 - 4:52 pm

I’m sorry if I sound unsympathetic or if it appears I’m siding with the bus driver and blaming the victim — I’m not. I don’t know all the facts, all I know is that Mr. Kahn was reportedly running into the intersection to beat a light (which suggests it started flashing “Don’t Walk”). Perhaps he was running down the sidewalk and didn’t even break a stride when he stepped off of the curb. If the driver looked before turning, and saw that it was clear, I can’t fault him if someone darts in front of the bus at the last second. There’s too many “if”s here to say for sure, but I don’t think we can jump to conclusions and lay blame on anyone. My point, though, is that this incident had nothing to do with his prior texting-on-the-job incident.

Benjamin Kabak November 10, 2009 - 4:54 pm

My point, though, is that this incident had nothing to do with his prior texting-on-the-job incident.

That’s mostly true. It depends upon what type of driver you want though. Is someone who texts on the job a more negligent driver than others? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a question that has to be asked.

AK November 10, 2009 - 7:50 pm

Given that texting while driving is more dangerous than drinking and driving, the answer (at least the consensus answer) would have to be yes.

Andrew November 11, 2009 - 10:46 pm

Someone who texts while operating a motor vehicle (and especially a bus!) has made it plainly obvious that he or she does not respect the tremendous damage that he or she can cause by making the slightest mistake.

Someone who has demonstrated this sort of blatant disregard for basic safety should never be permitted to hold a safety-sensitive job title.

Whether Mr. Philhower was texting at the time of the vehicular homicide is not particularly relevant.

Gil November 10, 2009 - 1:29 pm

My (soon to be) brother-in-law was friends with the person who got killed by this texting driver. This is outrageous.

It doesn’t matter if he tried to beat the light or not (and the “proof” of him doing this is quite sketchy at best). If you’re driving a heavy machine like a NYC bus, and you’re the type who texts while doing it, you’re obviously not the type who pays enough attention to your driving safety. A more attentive driver would have been less likely to hit a pedestrian while rushing an intersection. That simple.

I’m not saying to fire him. Find him some desk job at the MTA; lord knows they have an abundance of those. But revoke the damn man’s license.

SEAN November 10, 2009 - 2:33 pm

The WMATA does have a zero tolerance policy for texting or talking on cell phones. drivers are fired on the spot if caught even in emergencies.

Alon Levy November 11, 2009 - 2:32 am

The Gothamist says the driver wasn’t texting during the accident; he had been suspended before for texting. The money quote:

While investigators don’t believe he was using his phone at the time of the accident, they do say that he often used it “to post disparaging comments about his passengers to Facebook while on duty.”

Facing tough times, transit unions come under fire :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog November 12, 2009 - 1:18 am

[…] struck by a bus while he was cross the street. On Tuesday, I reported that this bus driver had been suspended for texting behind the wheel. Protests by the Amalgamated Transit Union, though, led to a simple […]


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