Citizen Journalists on Prowl for Train and Bus Operators Asleep at Wheel

Several high-profile public transportation accidents and a lack of a national, regional or local surveillance system to monitor the operators of the nation’s public transportation have prompted a flood of citizen journalists to try to capture operators asleep at the wheel or texting.

In May, a Boston trolley operator texting his girlfriend rear-ended another trolley and injured 50 people, which prompted an ongoing probe, according to the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

Last September, a train operator in Southern California crashed his commuter train while he was text messaging. Twenty five people were killed in that crash, the worst accident in the nation’s history aboard a commuter train system.

And most recently, the Washington, D.C., Metro suffered the worst crash in its history June 22, when nine people were killed. The crash was not due to text messaging, but it is under investigation.

Gregory Thomas, 14, had shot video of a train operator falling asleep on the Metro a few weeks before the crash, and news of the crash spurred him to give his footage to the local FOX affiliate and to post it on YouTube.

A train buff since he was a toddler, Thomas said he wishes he had taken more action before the crash happened.

“I’m pretty glad I put video out there,” he said in a telephone interview. “I carried a camera before, but now I carry it everywhere and make sure I have extra batteries.”

Steven Taubenkibel, a spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, said cell phone photos and video taken by passengers as part of their complaints is “part of our society today.”

He said there is no talk of cameras being installed to monitor bus drivers or train operators in Washington. There are no cameras inside of D.C.’s trains, but about half of the city’s bus fleet has cameras trained on doors because of numerous cases of bus operators being assaulted by passengers.

“We’ve always said if people share enough information if they see something that’s unsafe, let us know.” said Taubenkibel.

A photo surfaced a few days ago of a bus driver in Maryland reading and driving at the same time. The passenger who took the photo requested to stay anonymous.

A National Safety and Transportation Board spokesman confirmed there are no national, regional or local systems in place to monitor the operators of the nation’s public transportation.

And when there are cameras, as in the D.C. buses, they are looking outside the trains and buses rather than watching the driver’s job performance.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, concerns were heightened about possible attacks on public transportation, and video surveillance is in place to survey suspicious passengers.

In Boston, a concerned citizen showed a bus driver doing Suduko, and another video tape of a different D.C. Metro train operator showed him looking down away from the track and sending texts messages.

The photo taken by Gadi Niram accompanied an angry letter of complaint he sent about the driver on the Boston trolley system, called the T, playing a game of Sudoku on the job, according to the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority.

While there is sympathy for the drivers, the Boston Herald editorial staff may have captured the idea of citizen journalism when it wrote in its July 15 editorial: "When will T workers figure out that every passenger is now a spy with a cell phone!"