One driver was busted after running into a curb and blowing a tire with two disabled riders aboard.
The drivers who were caught had been working eight-, 10- or 12-hour shifts, but Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764 President Wayne Baker worries his drivers will have even more trouble staying awake when Metro moves them to 13-hour shifts later this week. The drivers will be driving for 12 hours and have a one-hour break.
"It's going to make it harder," he said.
The drivers were busted between July 2008 through May 2011 by special cameras inside the vehicles of the federally mandated paratransit service, which shuttles disabled and elderly riders unable to use Metro trains or buses. The cameras constantly film the drivers yet preserve the recordings only when the vehicle makes an unusual move, such as braking too hard, accelerating too quickly or hitting something.
Four drivers had multiple warnings within the same day, the records show, with one caught falling asleep by the cameras four times during a seven-hour period in April 2010. Hard braking triggered the camera.
Separately, the agency logged 14 cases in which drivers -- or the riders they were shuttling -- reported the drowsiness, the records show.
Many of the drivers received verbal warnings and retraining, according to the data. But Baker said one driver, who had been disciplined for other matters as well, was fired after falling asleep on the job.
"I wouldn't say there is an issue," said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. He called the safety concerns a "red herring" that the union is raising because workers don't want to work the longer shifts. He said they would get adequate rest by having 12 hours off between shifts and working consistent schedules three days per week, as drivers for other transit agencies do.
Worker fatigue is a perennial concern for transportation workers but especially drivers and operators. The U.S. Department of Transportation limits drivers to 10 hours on the road for all commercial vehicles that can carry a driver and eight or more paying riders.
Earlier this month, Baker accused the transit agency of skirting those rules by swapping out vehicles and removing seats of MetroAccess vans. Metro's contractor, MV Transportation, acknowledged that it removed seats on 13 vehicles, so they would have seven seats for riders instead of eight. But officials said they did so to accommodate customers who use larger wheelchairs.
"MetroAccess vehicles operate differently than the long-haul bus operators doing extended periods on Interstate 95," Stessel added.
Metro's board of directors is scheduled to discuss the safety implications of worker fatigue at their Thursday meeting. Beyond the MetroAccess union's concerns, the safety of long overtime hours worked by track workers and others has been questioned. The Washington Examiner reported in May that some construction inspectors and track supervisors logged more than 40 hours of overtime a week, working 16 hours every day.