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California fines Muni $120K for cell phone use

Prompted by a fatal 2011 train disaster, California has a zero-tolerance policy on personal phone use by SFMTA employees

A bike on a rack on the front of a Muni bus. Photo by Sundry Photography

In a decision handed down in December but public disclosed last week, the California Public Utilities Commission [CPUC] slapped SFMTA with a combined $120,000 in fines over Muni personnel using their mobiles phones on the job.

The state enforced strict rules about the use of personal electronic devices (including “but not limited to” phones, pagers, laptops, MP3 players, and “any headphones or earbuds,” according to the provisions) while transit employees are on the job.

According to CPUC’s General Order 172:

Persons shall be strictly prohibited from using electronic devices, while: Operating rail transit and other on-track vehicles; Dispatching, flagging, or otherwise controlling the movement of rail transit vehicles; Performing any task while fouling the tracks [ie, working in an area where a train collision is possible.].

[...] The purpose of these rules and regulations is to eliminate distractions from the use of personal electronic devices by certain RTA employees operating, controlling, or working around rail transit vehicles or tracks.

“Devices must be turned off and stowed” out of sight for anyone actually operating a vehicle, meaning that it’s possible to violate the rules even without actually using a phone or similar device.

According to the December citation, state inspectors caught Muni personnel breaking the rules 16 times between October 2017 and July 2018. For context, there were only seven violations between 2015 and late 2017.

Violations included drivers not having their phones turned off while on the job, non-driving Muni staff talking on personal phones while on the job and walking on tracks, and in one case refusing to cooperate with inspectors by turning phones over for examination.

Each infraction costs the city $7,500, making the total bill $120,000 through half of last year.

The state implemented zero-tolerance rules for phone use after a 2008 rail disaster in Los Angeles County:

General Order 172 was prompted by the September 2008 tragedy at Chatsworth, where 25 people died and more than 100 were injured when a Metrolink passenger train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train.

The investigation concluded that the Metrolink train’s engineer failed to stop for a red signal because he was distracted by numerous texting exchanges on his personal cell phone seconds before the collision occurred.

State regulators placed a temporary ban on device use by transit employees less than a week after the wreck. In 2011 CPUC voted unanimously to make the prohibitions permanent.