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Cell phone ban may follow Mass. trolley collision

Sunday, May 10, 2009

(Photo)
Boston emergency responders move an unidentified injured woman from the Government Center MBTA station after a train collision Friday in Boston. Two trolleys crashed between underground stations in downtown Boston, and dozens of people were reported injured.
(MATTHEW HEALEY ~ Boston Herald)
BOSTON -- The head of the Boston-area transit authority said Saturday he'll ban all train and bus operators from even carrying cell phones on board after a trolley driver told police he was texting his girlfriend before a collision Friday.

About 50 people were hurt in the underground crash in downtown Boston, though none of the injuries was life-threatening.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority already bans operators from using cell phones and recently ran an internal ad campaign featuring a poster of an open cell phone that warned employees not to drive "under the influence."

But general manager Daniel Grabauskas said Saturday the temptation obviously was too great for some.

"I want to remove any temptation by one or two people stupid enough to think a moment of convenience is worth the lives of the people they're transporting," he said. "I'm not going to wait for someone to die to institute a policy whose time I think has come."

Grabauskas said the new ban would apply to anyone working on a train or bus. He said he hopes to have the policy in place within a week.

The proposal won quick support from Steve MacDougall, president and business agent of the Boston Carmen's Union, Local 589, which represents most of the MBTA's roughly 6,000 employees

MacDougall said it was clear that Friday's accident could have been "far, far worse than it was."

He said he expects some resistance to the policy from union members who believe they're being punished for the irresponsibility of one employee. But he said he believes most workers eventually will embrace the change.

"When it comes to public safety and operating public transportation vehicles, a line has to be drawn," he said.

State Transportation Secretary James Aloisi Jr., chairman of the MBTA Board of Directors, said accidents like Friday's have become too common, citing a train accident last year in California in which 25 people were killed. An engineer involved in that crash was found to have sent and received dozens of text messages, including one sent 22 seconds before the crash.

Aloisi said he doesn't know of any policy nationwide as tough as what the MBTA is planning.

Friday's accident happened about 7:20 p.m. in a tunnel between the Green Line's Park Street and Government Center stations. A two-car train was stopped at a red signal, waiting to enter Park Station, when it was hit by another two-car train.

About 100 people were removed, including some who had to be extracted from the trains, and 49 were taken to area hospitals. The worst injury was a broken wrist suffered by the 24-year-old operator, who officials say admitted to police that he was sending a text message at the time of the crash. The MBTA did not release the man's name, but he was identified as Aiden Quinn, of Attleboro, by a person close to the investigation who was not authorized to release the name and spoke only on condition of anonymity. A telephone listing for Quinn could not immediately be located, and he couldn't be reached for comment.

Grabauskas said the trolley operator would be fired, assuming the preliminary findings of the investigation are borne out.

Criminal charges against the driver are being considered by the transit police and the local district attorney's office, Grabauskas said.

The Green Line remained closed Saturday as a National Transportation Safety Board team investigated the scene. Grabauskas said he hoped the line would be running by day's end Saturday.

The current MBTA policy increases penalties for workers each time they're caught using cell phones on board. Under the new one, a worker would be fired the first time he or she carried a cell phone on board. Workers have been allowed to use cell phones off the trains and buses while between trips.

Buses are equipped with global positioning systems in case the radios fail, and most trolley riders have cell phones, which could be a backup if a radio malfunctions on a train, Grabauskas said. The MBTA also has a system that allows family members to inform employees of problems at home and the MBTA to send new drivers, without using cell phones.

Grabauskas said Friday's accident leaves no doubt the change is needed.

"There's no rationale, no excuse for this," he said.


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