No way to contact management in the event of driver medical or psychiatric emergency
My wife had a meeting in New York City over the weekend, as is sometimes the case, and decided to take a bus back to Boston on Sunday evening. Over our many years together, we have found that buses are generally the best—and certainly most economical—way to get between the two cities. We are aware of the prejudices that many people have against this mode of transportation, but we agree that they are wrong. Yes, buses can be cramped. Yes, you can’t really walk around on a bus once it’s on the road. Yes, there are no snacks or other amenities on board—beyond bathrooms that it’s usually best to avoid using for some obvious reasons.
But buses get you from A to B with a minimum of fuss. And in the case of the Boston-NYC route, they usually get you there in four to four and a half hours—depending on traffic. Roughly the same time (when all factors are considered) as taking the train or flying. At a fraction of the price.
Which is not to say we have not had many adventures and inconveniences traveling in this fashion. And those inconveniences virtually all happen upon trying to get from NYC to Boston on a Sunday evening. When masses of students return to the Hub after a weekend in the Big Apple. Huge lines at Port Authority are the order of those days, and bus companies press any vehicle that rolls into service to meet the demand. Your ticket may say your bus is leaving at a particular time. But the staff in charge of boarding buses and the dispatchers in charge of getting them out of the labyrinthine structure that is Port Authority play fast and loose with rules and schedules.
These days it’s no longer necessary to choose a bus company that stops at NYC’s main bus terminal at all. There are other lower cost options like MegaBus and BoltBus. And the “Chinatown buses” which wink in and out of existence—based as they are on exploiting immigrant labor… with maintenance records so poor that some of their buses have had major issues like literally catching fire while in motion over the years. But my wife and I avoid the cheaper buses on labor grounds and concerns about cost-cutting measures that could affect safety. Although MegaBus and the Greyhound-owned BoltBus apparently do have unionized drivers in the northeast.
So most of the time, we stick with ailing bus giant Greyhound. It’s been through multiple bankruptcies and various owners over the decades we’ve used it. But it’s still the most heavily unionized bus line—and union drivers and mechanics are typically far more likely to run a decent service then most nonunion shops. And we feel it’s worth paying an extra $10-20 each way to arrive safely at our destination. While departing from and arriving at (more or less) climate-controlled bus stations. Rather than having to wait outside in whatever weather for buses in NYC as with the cheaper bus lines. Even if we occasionally have a Sunday night trip that lasts hours longer than it should normally take—as it just did last week to my partner Chris Faraone. And even if I once had to help a driver that got lost on a foggy night years before GPS became ubiquitous—guiding him out of downtown Worcester to Boston’s South Station Bus Terminal several hours after we left NYC.
Wonky as that latter predicament was, I have only rarely felt unsafe on a Greyhound bus—and usually only for a brief moment or two due to traffic or road conditions outside my driver’s control.
But this Sunday, something happened to my wife on a Greyhound bus that severely shook our confidence in the company and left us worried about a problem we had never considered before. One which I think is worth sharing with the general public, Greyhound management, other bus company management, transportation union leadership, and government regulators—weak though they often are in this era of ever-diminishing government oversight of corporations.
My wife’s bus left Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City early at 5:50 pm on a scheduled 6:30 pm departure bound for Boston. We were in touch by text throughout what transpired next.
She had told me that passengers were instructed to board about 20 minutes prior to that early departure time then had to wait for Greyhound to find a driver. A young woman driver was found, and the bus left just after that staffer boarded.
As the bus exited Port Authority, the driver announced that passengers should be patient with her because she was from New Orleans and had never driven from NYC to Boston before. The bus proceeded uptown as is generally the case when going to Boston—although Greyhound buses take any of several routes out of the city depending on traffic.
However, my wife stated that the driver started getting confused about where to go fairly quickly. And the bus ended up circling around Harlem and the Upper West Side without proceeding east to bridges that would take it to highways going north. Instead driving west past the City University of New York’s main campus and onto Riverside Drive at one point, and then as far south as 80th and Broadway. At which time the driver started talking to someone on a phone.
The bus had been on the road about an hour and a half at that point. The driver made no attempt to communicate with the passengers and let them know what was going on. Or to ask passengers—many of whom, like my wife, know Manhattan and any of various routes to Boston well—for help navigating. Which is much more difficult to do these days anyway because Greyhound drivers now have a door between them and passengers. The easy communication between drivers and passengers of the pre-9/11 and -weekly mass shooting days is now gone. And that’s likely why no passengers—including my wife—tried to engage the driver as things went from bad to worse.
So my wife, and other passengers, became concerned early into the journey. And then scared, as the driver ran at least two red lights, drove into two blind alleys and had to back the bus out, and almost hit a van. Punctuated by stopping the bus a few times on busy streets in evident attempts to figure out where to go on her own.
Finally, the person on the phone gave the driver correct directions to the Madison Ave Bridge and thence to Routes 87, 278, and 95. After which the trip proceeded as normal, and arrived about an hour late.
While the incident was going on, I posted a note about my concern with the threat to the safety of my wife, passengers, other vehicles and pedestrians to my personal Twitter account—and then shared it to my newspaper’s account—notifying both the @GreyhoundBus and @GHoundBusHelp accounts in the process. Help desk people on both accounts ultimately just told me to have my wife call Greyhound’s regular customer service lines.
Fortunately, my wife and her fellow passengers got home safely. It seems like her inexperienced driver started driving erratically after getting lost in uptown Manhattan, and then got some kind of assistance from another driver or a dispatcher. She apparently had GPS, as one would expect in this day and age. But it either wasn’t working properly or she was in no state to make proper use of it to get her bus out of the city and on the road to Boston.
All of which leads me to my main reason for writing this column: While Greyhound has taken steps to protect drivers from attacks by dangerous passengers by placing doors next to the driver’s seat on its buses, what can passengers do if a driver has a medical or psychiatric emergency that puts them in danger?
All communication channels that passengers like my wife could avail themselves of during Sunday evening’s incident seem to lead to Greyhound’s main customer service phone lines. And upon contacting said lines, my wife and other passengers’ concerns for their safety were not addressed in any way by Greyhound customer service representatives. They were simply told to call back in 24 hours and maybe get a credit or a refund or nothing at all, one supposes. Although the reps did confirm that their drivers have GPS and that the company had a tracker on each bus—and, critically, that they couldn’t talk to my wife’s bus’s driver while the bus was en route.
It was a situation that wasn’t quite bad enough to call the police to interdict the bus, but could have become one after it was too late to affect the outcome. A situation when a call from company management to tell the driver to stop the bus where she was and let the passengers off while they sent another bus and driver to relieve her of duty could have stopped things from escalating to a tragic conclusion where people on or off the bus could end up being hurt or killed.
I asked Greyhound media relations spokesperson Crystal Booker to comment on the record on these matters in time for my deadline, and she told me that Greyhound management might not be able to complete an investigation of the incident involving my wife in time for publication this week. So I will plan to write a second installment with the company’s response as soon as I receive it.
But for now, I must say that Greyhound, other bus companies, drivers unions (where they exist), and government regulators need to address this problem. In another transportation industry, so-called ridesharing, both Uber and Lyft—under pressure—have introduced “panic buttons” to their apps that connect passengers who feel in danger for any reason, including a driver’s actions, to local 911 services with a single touch.
It seems like it’s past time for Greyhound and other bus companies to do something similar. Maybe some kind of panic button app that gives passengers a choice to either get in touch with a corporate office prepared to bring a problem driver to heel or contact local 911 depending on the severity of the situation.
Readers with opinions on this matter, or Greyhound or other bus company employees with information germaine to this discussion, should contact me at [email protected]. Because this seems like a problem that needs all hands on deck until a workable solution is found. And my wife and her fellow passengers are hardly the first people to experience this problem. As a quick internet search of bus driver arrests for DUIs and the like—or avoidable accidents causing injuries and deaths—will inform even a casual researcher.
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.