Time for TARTA to address bus drivers’ bathroom breaks

The issue is a matter of health and dignity, and a serious safety concern for riders and drivers


At a recent board meeting of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, trustees were made aware of a serious and long-standing problem: Toledo Paratransit bus drivers are denied bathroom breaks and even disciplined for using the bathroom.

Drivers have actually soiled themselves on the job in fear of punishment. Can you imagine been reprimanded at work for using the bathroom?

After listening uncomfortably, the board read a statement prepared by the agency without proper investigation.

TARTA is the poster child for this dangerous and unknown problem of inadequate bathroom breaks, which is plaguing bus drivers across the country. It’s a matter of a driver’s health and dignity, but also a serious safety concern for riders and drivers.

Many transit agency officials — including those at TARTA — believe bus operators can use a restroom whenever necessary. But that’s simply not the case.

Drivers today operate schedules designed by computers that allow no time for human needs. Drivers can be penalized if they don’t hit stops and finish routes right on time. Pressure also comes from passengers who must get to destinations on time.

More issues arise when real-life situations — traffic congestion, accidents, weather — intrude on the best-laid plans of the commuter. Anyone who’s ever driven in most cities knows that traffic problems occur every day.

Buses are delayed daily. Bus operators, who must follow the schedule no matter what, have little or no time to use the bathroom. If you don’t think this is a problem, just imagine having to wait three or four hours to use a restroom at your place of employment.

Most important, there are serious safety concerns involved in driving while holding your bladder for an extended period of time. According to a recent study, an extreme urge to use the bathroom has similar cognitive effects as 24 hours without sleep or a .05 percent blood-alcohol content, which is the same as many states’ limit for intoxication.

It also can lead to serious health problems and even life-threatening, preventable diseases, including urinary tract infections and bladder cancer.

But maintaining an impossible schedule seems to trump all other concerns at most transit agencies.

A bus driver in Mississauga, Ontario, was suspended for five days last month for taking time to use the bathroom while on duty. Another in Portland, Oregon, was brutally stabbed while using a portable toilet installed as a makeshift driver bathroom facility.

The solution, of course, is so simple it’s ridiculous: Build extra time into transit routes or have mandatory breaks for drivers. But that’s not a priority for TARTA, or most other systems.

Stories like these long have been ignored because of the indelicate nature of the subject matter. But one in particular exemplifies the safety consequences of inaction.

A few years ago, in Portland, Oregon, bus driver Diane Boothe was in a hurry to take a restroom break. She was late when she pulled her bus into a depot, left the bus running in a forward gear, and failed to set the parking brake properly.

She hurriedly walked in front of the bus, reached in the driver’s window to pull a lever to close the doors, and then walked back across the front of the bus on her way to the rest room.

When she closed the door, the brakes were released after a 1½-second delay. The bus struck her, pinned her to a bus-stop sign, and killed her instantly.

It’s time for TARTA to address this issue, not only for the health and dignity of drivers, but also for the safety of riders and drivers.

Cynthia Betz is president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 697, which represents TARTA workers. Lawrence J. Hanley is ATU international president.