[from March 2007 issue]


For long-time readers of newspaper the title we have chosen for our commentary this month may seem vaguely familiar. And, well might they believe, since it is a title we are reprising from our July 2002 issue. That month we reported the scary experience of this newspaper’s own contributing photographer nearly being run down by a Metrobus as he was legally in a marked crosswalk in the 1900 block of Columbia Road. The narrative we shared with our readers at the time clearly revealed that the driver was out of control -- more so his mental faculties than his machine.

We will not take the space here, nearly five years later, to recount the outrageous details; the entire story is available on our website at the click of a computer mouse by opening up the prior editorials list and scrolling down to that for July 2002. (Go to www.intowner.com and on the home page click the link under “From the Publisher’s Desk” to bring up the current editorial and at the top of that page click the link for the prior editorials.)

What we should report, however, is that, notwithstanding that Metro called the police and accused the complainant of being at fault even though there were witnesses on the scene who contradicted that conclusion, ultimately Metro did in fact determine that it was the driver who had been completely in the wrong, and so acknowledged that without equivocation. That was, however, many weeks after this publisher had received a blistering bawling out over the telephone by Metro’s spokesman for what he characterized as biased and incompetent reporting; he was absolutely adamant even though he had not even seen any official reports about the incident. And, even after Metro’s conclusion was made known to him he never apologized to us!

What all that revealed was that Metro then -- and certainly up to this very point in time -- continued to operate within a culture of deniability and refusal to admit errors. We are now very encouraged that the new man in charge who has just taken over may be genuinely committed to changing this bizarre collective attitude.

But our readers should know that what we have been seeing and hearing of late is nothing new in the bus world of Washington, DC. Some perspective from the vantage point of the 45 years that this writer has lived in DC might be enlightening.

In three words, nothing has changed. Our experience was always that too many bus drivers could not be trusted not to kill one who was trying to cross the streets when the lights were with them. And, that was back in the days of O. Roy Chalk’s private DC Transit and at a time when the suburbs were served by other private bus companies -- all converging down around the Federal Triangle.

Case in point then as now was that intersection at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. When we read about those two women employees of the Federal Trade Commission who were killed while crossing over from the southwest corner to the northwest corner when the bus came careening at them as it was turning from 7th Street to go west on Pennsylvania Avenue, we thought that could have been us back in the mid-1960s when we, too, worked at the Federal Trade Commission. So skittish were many of us working there that when we went out for lunch or to go home if we needed to cross over to the northwest corner we always made a point of crossing to the east of 7th Street itself and then making a second crossing over to the west side once we were on the corner north of the intersection. That way, we avoided having to worry about bus drivers not paying attention as they made that turn coming up 7th Street from south of the Mall.

So, as one can figure out by this narrative, nothing ever seems to have changed in the bus business around here.

But 7th and Penn wasn’t just an isolated problem. From the time we started working on Dupont Circle in 1967 right up to the present time, we have regularly witnessed bus drivers plowing through lights that were already yellow and often red. And, many times we would call to report drivers running red lights, providing bus numbers and specific times. Of course we were always told the drivers would be interviewed, but we never had any evidence that anything was ever done; certainly we were never called upon to be interviewed ourselves or to testify.

Ultimately, everything seems to boil down to a kind of culture of arrogance -- and not only with bus drivers, but Metro kiosk attendants as well who frequently reveal contempt for those of us who make their jobs possible. Think about it: just within days of the woman being mowed down across from the FTC and the other reports of careless operations were flying about and Metro’s top management was on the case, one of the local TV reporters was out on 16th Street catching drivers pushing through red lights, speeding, and yakking on cell phones. The worst part is when confronted by the reporter one driver who was unlucky enough to be caught on camera was totally unapologetic to the reporter, actually brushed him off! Fortunately for us who have to fear busses, Ward 1 Councilmember and Metro Board member Jim Graham, when shown the videos was clearly beside himself with anger over the situation.

Hopefully, Graham’s anger coupled with new management will finally, after 45 years, bring about changes for the better.

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