Blind Transit Riders Deserve Safe Callout System

Ben Williams / Times Colonist
July 4, 2015 12:08 AM

How can a serious problem affecting people with disabilities in Victoria persist for seven years when everyone involved agrees on the obvious solution?

That’s the question that has perplexed Greater Victoria transit operators, their union, the Canadian Federation of the Blind, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and now the B.C. Supreme Court.

Because everyone agrees that an automated call-out system for bus stops in Greater Victoria is the only safe, effective way to ensure the rights of the blind are respected on our transit system.

Even the only party that can quickly end the years-long stalemate – B.C. Transit – accepts that an automated call-out system is the right solution.

B.C. Transit requested bids with a closing date of May 5 for an automated system, and the union has been told a “pilot program” will take place over the summer with a goal of implementing a new system in the fall.

But getting this problem fixed can’t come soon enough. And forgive drivers for not yet being convinced after seven years of delay that the solution is actually on the way.

One reason is because earlier this year, transit operators began being disciplined for not complying 100 per cent with B.C. Transit management demands that every stop on every route be called out.

B.C. Transit took that action to get a human rights complaint by the federation withdrawn, instead of implementing an automated call-out system.

On behalf of our members, Unifor Local 333 strenuously objected – because trying to call out stops with a public address system while driving a multi-tonne bus loaded with dozens of passengers through heavy traffic is simply unsafe.

And in fact, scientific research has proven what should seem obvious to anyone – that distracted driving leads to preventable accidents.

A study conducted for the Transportation Association of Canada suggested that manually calling all 550 stops per day in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario would lead to 2.8 to 5.6 additional crashes per year. That study used a real bus and filmed both very experienced and newer drivers on a practice route to reach its conclusions.

Then consider that in Greater Victoria, there are 2,900 different stops. On some routes, transit operators could be calling out a stop every 32 seconds.

Most major cities don’t need to study the issue – they’ve already acted to put safety and human rights first, by implementing automated call-out systems that use a global positioning system device.

Vancouver has long had proven technology that works for the blind while ensuring bus drivers are not asked to call stops and can instead focus on their challenging jobs.

Unfortunately, B.C. Transit has been exceptionally slow in doing the right thing.

As a result of the order to call out stops, more than 200 of our members have individually invoked their right to refuse unsafe work under WorkSafe B.C. rules in the meantime. One driver has already been suspended for not calling out 100 per cent of his stops.

We need the automated system installed as quickly as possible.

The Victoria president of the Canadian Federation of the Blind, Mary Ellen Gabias, has noted that it is not only better for her members but also tourists and infrequent bus users. We totally agree.

But unfortunately, Gabias also described the situation as one of B.C. Transit and the union “wrangling” over the issue. On that, we strongly disagree.

Our members are simply concerned about safety – that of their passengers, pedestrians, other drivers and themselves. Transit operators are professional drivers who don’t take distracted driving lightly.

But rather than all parties disagreeing in public on something everyone agrees with in principle, it would be a far better solution if B.C. Transit would publicly make installing automated voice systems on every bus an immediate priority, without further delay.

Ben Williams is president of Unifor Local 333, representing Greater Victoria transit operators, mechanics and other staff employed by B.C. Transit.

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