Boston bans cells for nearly all transit drivers

/ Source: The Associated Press

Massachusetts transportation officials announced Wednesday they were immediately banning nearly all mass-transit drivers in Boston from using or even carrying cell phones or other personal digital assistants after a text-messaging trolley driver caused a crash last week that injured nearly 50 people.

MBTA train, street car and bus drivers caught using the devices can be suspended for 30 days after the first offense, with a recommendation for discharge. Having the devices at work carries a 10-day suspension for the first offense, while a second offense carries a 30-day suspension, with a recommendation for discharge.

The policy does not immediately apply to commuter rail engineers, who are employed by a different agency. The two-strike policy for carrying a device is aimed at leniency toward an operator who forgets he or she is carrying a phone, officials said.

"A moment's convenience is not worth jeopardizing the safety of our passengers," said Daniel Grabauskas, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. "I have considered the concerns expressed about the inconvenience that some operators may face because they will have to find alternatives to making a few phone calls on their break and have determined that those concerns do not outweigh customer and employee safety."

Transportation Secretary James Aloisi said the policy was the first of its kind for a major transit agency in the United States.

"I predict what we do here in Massachusetts today will soon become a national model," he said.

MBTA operator Aiden Quinn, 24, told police he was texting his girlfriend before crashing his Green Line trolley into another train that had stopped Friday night at an underground station at the edge of Boston Common. The collision sent nearly 50 people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries and caused an estimated $9 million in equipment damage.

It also shut down for the weekend the portion of the Green Line that travels from Somerville northwest of the city, through downtown Boston and then west to Boston College. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash during the shutdown.

The transit agency already had banned operators from using cell phones. It also recently ran an internal ad campaign featuring a poster of an open cell phone that warned employees not to drive "under the influence."

The MBTA stepped up enforcement of the ban following another Green Line crash in Newton last May that killed the trolley operator. Despite initial reports the driver was using a cell phone just before the crash, an investigation ultimately determined there was no evidence she was using her phone.

Quinn skipped a meeting Tuesday with NTSB investigators and has yet to meet with MBTA officials. Grabauskas said if he does not meet by Friday, the agency will begin termination procedures.

Quinn's attorney, Michelle Menken said he is recovering from a shattered wrist and feels remorseful over the crash, but she has advised him not to talk with investigators while he is potentially facing criminal charges in the accident.

"He'd like to help, but at this point he hasn't been offered any incentives or legal protection," Menken said Wednesday.

The union representing subway operators said Tuesday it supports a cell phone ban but criticized the MBTA for not installing a more modern signal system used by many other U.S. transit systems.

Gov. Deval Patrick has asked Aloisi to review the hiring practices and training policies for all transportation agencies in the state. Grabauskas said that was a good idea, but questions about whether Quinn was too young to be a trolley operator missed the point: driver distraction.

"The bottom line is this: I know what I saw on Friday night in that tunnel. I know what the cause was. And I know this new policy would have prevented it," he said.