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Monday, November 30, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Metro Bus Drivers Say More Security Measures Needed On Some Routes

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

Regardless of whether Friday's shooting of a Metro Transit bus driver was an act of random violence or a reflection of uncomfortable and disturbing conditions on certain routes, Metro drivers say they need improved security for themselves and passengers.

"The last time things got this hairy was when one of our drivers was hit in the head with a brick," said Barry Samet, president of Local 587 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. "Now someone has been killed. We need to be very aggressive in coming to a solution."

Metro driver Mark McLaughlin, 44, was killed after he was shot by a passenger and his bus fell off the Aurora Bridge onto an apartment building 50 feet below. Two others died and 33 were injured.

Both union and Metro Transit officials said there is little they can do to prevent a determined person from targeting a bus or driver.

"Given everything we know about it, I don't believe this was preventable," said Rick Walsh, Metro general manager.

Drivers and union officials said they know the most dangerous routes, and several said that while most of the problems concern drunken or abusive passengers, it shouldn't have been a surprise that one of them turned violent.

The worst routes, said Paul Bachtel, a driver and union shop steward, are trunk lines that connect downtown Seattle with outlying areas. In particular, he cited the 174 route to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the 150 to Auburn and the 6 route from North King County to Seattle. The 359, the route on which Friday's tragedy occurred, is an express version of the 6 route.

"They have the huge majority of problems," Bachtel said, noting that they often serve busy arterials that run through areas noted for drug use and prostitution.

Behavior he has seen on those routes - drug dealing and drunkenness - doesn't occur on the buses to in-city areas or suburban neighborhoods, he said.

Metro officials said injuries to drivers have been on the decline for several years, and police presence has been increased - particularly since responsibility for bus safety was given to the King County Sheriff's Office two years ago.

Metro and union officials were to meet today to discuss safety issues. Their focus could range from enclosing drivers in bulletproof Plexiglas to video surveillance cameras.

Metro drivers Saturday were very somber, having lost a respected colleague.

Shannon Morgan, 24, a driver for 2 1/2 years, was dealing with both her own terror and that of her young son. Morgan drives the same route the incident occurred on Friday. When her son, T.J., saw TV coverage of the incident, he panicked as well.

"My 5-year-old said yesterday, `Mommy, who shot your bus?' " she said. "He's scared."

So is she. She was alarmed at first when she didn't know the driver's identity and thought it could have been her father, who also draws that route and was driving the bus that was 10 minutes ahead of McLaughlin's. Morgan was scheduled to drive the 359 route today, but didn't know if she would.

"Right now, I know I could not handle getting behind the wheel of the bus," she said.

Morgan said "99 percent of these passengers are good people. It's that 1 percent. That 1 percent killed Mark."

Drivers said they deal every day with problems ranging from riders who refuse to pay, to belligerent, even abusive passengers.

"They yell at you and tell you how worthless you are," she said.

Often, riders who miss a bus will take out their frustration on the driver that picks them up. "They get on the bus and are so mad, or in your face."

Metro should be doing more to protect its drivers, such as installing bulletproof cages, said Mike Rossner, who retired Saturday after 27 years of driving buses.

Reuben Hoke, who is three years shy of retirement, is looking forward to leaving belligerent riders behind.

"We get verbally, physically and mentally abused," he said. "How are we as just operators going to stop it?"

He doesn't know what Metro can do to improve safety or how to be prepared for the one rider who steps over the line from being obnoxious to being dangerous.

"I don't know what makes a person act that way," he said. "All I know is what happened . . . hit too close to home."

Metro reported eight assaults on drivers in the first quarter of 1998, one more than the same period a year ago. That number is down significantly from a decade ago.

A database maintained by the American Public Transit Association indicates Metro is among the safest of the big-city transit agencies, with many fewer assaults recorded than cities such as Chicago, Boston, Portland and Philadelphia.

Driver safety was a major issue here in the mid-1980s, when much of the attention was focused on Route 7 through the Rainier Valley. That route is safer now, according to Metro officials and sheriff's deputies, because of a decline in gang activity.

Metro also curbed some passenger behavior problems by shutting down the free-ride zone in downtown Seattle after 9 p.m. Union officials said they may seek to end the free-ride zone altogether.

Drivers say many behavior problems begin with an unwillingness to pay the fare. Driver Mike Bachtel said both Portland and Vancouver, B.C., have teams of officials who board buses and demand fares be paid.

Metro is experimenting with surveillance cameras on two buses, and Walsh said that may be expanded, as it has proved useful in other cities as a deterrent to crimes.

The 1999 county budget calls for eight more uniformed officers on the security detail assigned to Metro, he said. Currently, the Sheriff's Office has assigned a captain and five sergeants to coordinate bus security.

Metro has for years hired off-duty officers to ride buses. Recently, sheriff's deputies have been riding the 174 in South King County.

Capt. John Reed, head of the unit, said they ride the No. 6 route five days a week.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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