New York

Transit Bigs, Facing Crisis, Stage Spitting Olympics

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The only thing more remarkable than the fact that some bus drivers needed sixty days off to pull themselves together after catching a gob of New York spit from unhinged passengers, is that there are no known recent instances of bus-driver-on-passenger homicides.

Any number of killings went the other way. New York saw one in December 2008 when a father of two named Edwin Thomas, who had never missed a day of work in his seven years on the job, was fatally stabbed in the chest by a passenger on his B46 in Brooklyn. Thomas’s only offense was to have refused to offer a transfer. The passenger hadn’t paid his fare, so it didn’t seem unreasonable to try and enforce MTA official policy. Serious mistake.

Just three weeks ago, out in Rialto, California, another passenger solved his grievance by stabbing a bus driver to death.

This kind of thing might make you feel a little vulnerable, sitting behind the wheel, looking down the stairs, not knowing if the guy headed your way is going to pay his fare with a Metro Card or a Bowie Knife.

The spitting debate is the MTA’s latest instance of contrived outrage at employee abuse. A couple of weeks ago it was those games of pool being shot by drivers working split shifts at the MTA’s own insistence. These stories are aimed at taking riders’ minds off the coming tsunami of transit cuts that are bound to leave New Yorkers fuming and in search of someone to blame. The spitting story went ’round the media horn, getting big yucks from the blogging crowd who have never faced greater occupational danger than an overheated palm-rest.

“This is government by anecdote,” Gene Russianoff of Straphangers Campaign/NYPIRG tells the Times‘ Jim Dwyer today.

Dwyer, who once wrote a wonderful transit column for the old New York Newsday, took a peek behind the stats on spit-induced sick days offered by the MTA.

“Of 69 spitting cases in 2009, 34 drivers came back to work for their next shift, and 9 took less than 10 days off,” reports Dwyer. “The remaining 26 ‘took quite a bit of time, but they were examined monthly by their own doctors and transit doctors,'” a union official reports. The Transit Authority tells Dwyer that those numbers “were correct.”

So much for the average 64 days with pay for 51 drivers, the story that played across the country.

When Jay Walder came back from London to run the MTA, the hope was that he would bring some of that London transit excellence with him, spiffing up the trains, and zipping up the busses. Instead, he’s majored in the politics of posturing, the only game being played these days in both City Hall and the Albany executive mansion.