Contact 5 Investigates new bus safety concerns

Are drivers pushing the speed limit?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - If you don't ride the bus in Palm Beach County you share the road with them every day.

A group of Palm Tran bus drivers spoke exclusively with NewsChannel 5 about new safety concerns.  They're worried about speeding and they're pushing for a second look at bus schedules, trying to prevent an accident from happening.

Bus schedules are printed every year and it's up to the driver to make each one of the stops on time.  But now as Palm Tran breaks new ridership records, some drivers say they're breaking the speed limit in order to keep up.

"Any person can sit on the side of the road and watch these buses go by at 50 miles an hour, constantly," said Scot Tetreault.  Scott's not just an observer, he's a bus driver.

"It's absolutely dangerous, absolutely," Tetreault said.

Tereault's not alone.  He, along with two other drivers, told the Contact 5 investigators that if they drove the speed limit every day, they wouldn't make their stops in time, especially during peak hours.

"You're moving and your mind is moving probably as fast as your foot is on that peddle," said driver Ronald Cooper.

"It's very hard to get even a small break at the end of our route," said Tetreault.

Since 2004, Palm Tran ridership has increased dramatically by more than three million passengers.  In fact, they broke a new record just last month.

CLICK HERE | Chart detailing ridership growth ( Mobile: http://bit.ly/tQoiQ4)

"Over a million riders in a month, never done that before," said Chuck Cohen, the Executive Director of Palm Tran.

However, no major changes have been made to route schedules in more than two years.

"Do these time points reflect that growth?  I don't think so," said Tetreault.

Extra passengers mean extra stops, especially during rush hour traffic.  Many regular passengers told NewsChannel 5 they're noticing delayed buses at scheduled stops.

WEB EXTRA | NewsChannel 5's Dan Krauth spent hours riding a Palm Tran bus (Mobile: http://bit.ly/swhD23)

The Contact 5 Investigators used a radar gun to put some buses to the test, an unofficial and unscientific test.

They checked the buses running on Dixie Highway in Boynton Beach during rush hour traffic.

The Contact 5 Investigators found a bus traveling the speed limit at 40 miles per hour.  But in a matter of two hours, they clocked two buses traveling at speeds of 53 miles per hour.  That's 13 miles over the speed limit.  They also clocked a number of buses traveling at a variety of speeds in between.

It might not sound like a lot, but drivers say it takes a bus longer to stop than a typical car.

"For a vehicle that's 40 feet long with passengers you are to reduce your speed, you are not to go over that speed," said driver Michelle Johnson.

The President of the bus drivers' union was not surprised by our findings. 

"The speed limit where they can go five miles, ten miles per hour over the speed limit in a safe area, they do that," said Dwight Mattingly.  "We encourage them not to (speed), we tell them they're not getting paid to speed," he said.

The Director of Palm Tran was surprised by the findings.

"We do not want them speeding, they know that and I really don't think, on the whole, that it's an issue," said Cohen.

Cohen said speeding concerns have not been brought to his attention before.  He said only five of his drivers have been ticketed for speeding so far this year.   But getting to stops on time has been a concern that has been brought to his attention.

"They've told us about the need to change some of the running times," Cohen said.  "We're going to follow it up," he said. 

The department has been using a new computer system for the past year that tracks the location of all buses and their speeds.  But Cohen said it only records average speed times.

"Overall, I think the running times are good but some of those individual time points do require some adjustments," Cohen said.

Cohen also said he reviewed route times on a monthly basis and is in the process of analyzing two routes for changes.  He also pointed to the safety award they've received for the past two years.

"We have about 300 operators that are in service," Cohen said.  "The fact that two or three are telling you this, i'm not going to discount it, as I said we'll follow it up, I really don't think it's an issue overall," the director said.

But some of the drivers do.

"It can be better and I do think in some ways, some times, these people are put in danger," said Tetreault.

There's about 10 minutes of recovery time built into every route in case traffic gets backed up or drivers have to use the bathroom.  But the drivers who spoke with NewsChannel 5 said most of that time is eaten up with the increase in passengers.

The drivers also said they're now only driving the speed limit, even if it means being late to stops.

Before the story even aired, the Contact 5 Investigators obtained a memo written by Cohen to his employees stating "my door is open to discuss this or any other

issue with you" and also stated he has notified the Sheriff and local police department asking them to give "extra vigilance to watching the operation/speed of our buses."

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