GITS drivers: no text, no emails

Published 10:49 am Wednesday, March 30, 2011

GATESVILLE – It’s apparent that texting and checking emails on a cell phone are major distractions for an individual operating a vehicle.

But what about placing or receiving a cell phone call? Could those distract a driver, especially one operating a public transportation vehicle.

Those issues were discussed at great length last week at a meeting of the Gates County Board of Commissioners. There, Patrice Lassiter, director of the Gates County Inter-Regional Transportation System (GITS), discussed policy and procedure of the department, one that now prohibits the use of a cell phone or similar device for the purpose of text messaging, surfing the internet and receiving or responding to email while operating a GITS vehicle.

Section 31 of the policy reads, “We recognize that other distractions occur during driving, however eliminating the use of texting, or emailing, while driving is one way to minimize the risk for our employees, passengers and the general public of accidents.”

The policy states that employees violating this policy are subject to disciplinary actions, up to and including termination of employment.

Meanwhile, the policy does not prohibit the use of cell phones for business use by GITS drivers. It does state that cell phone usage for personal reasons is prohibited.

“The way I’m reading this, you’re basically talking about texting and emailing, not using the phone,” Commissioner Henry Jordan said. 

“Currently we do have a policy saying they can’t use their cell phones for personal use,” Lassiter stated. “We’re now only talking about them using their cell phones for business use.”

“So, what you’re saying is they can use their cell phones, but not for texting or for emails,” Commission Chairman Graham Twine inquired.

“Yes, but we are asking (in those instances) that they do so using a hands-free device,” Lassiter responded, “but not for personal use.”

Lassiter added that the policy did not require a GITS driver to pull off the road, due to safety reasons, to use a cell phone.

“They’re not a lot of places in the county where you can safely pull off the road with a vehicle,” Lassiter noted.

Commissioner Jack Owens asked Lassiter about the amount of daily contact between the GITS office and the drivers.

“We notify them when a client is ready (for pick up); we call the driver to make sure they are en route,” Lassiter noted. “We call them to add a pick up to their schedule. It’s not a lot of calls. We do have (two-way) radios in each vehicle, but their use is limited to inside the county only and a lot of our transports are done outside the county. If not for cell phones, it limits our contact with the drivers.”

Lassiter added that other public transportation systems in neighboring counties use cell phones to communicate with their drivers.

“Cell phones are a valuable part of their communication process,” said Vice Chairman Kenneth Jernigan who represents the commissioners as a member of the GITS Advisory Board. “In today’s society it’s hard to get use to communicating without the use of a cell phone. It’s all going to come down to how she (Lassiter) educates her drivers to safely use a cell phone while operating a GITS vehicle.”

“There’s a big difference in placing a call on a cell phone and receiving one,” Owens stressed. “There’s a lot more distraction in dialing a number. I would consider a policy that says a driver must pull off the road to dial a number. From what I just heard, it sounds like there is a whole lot less cases of drivers making a call; it sounds like there’s more calls placed from the GITS office to the drivers.”

The cell phones used by the drivers are owned and provided by the county.

Upon a motion from Jordan motion and a second from Jernigan, the Cellular Phone Usage Policy was approved.

In another GITS matter, the board also approved that department’s Inclement Weather Policy, intertwining it with the same type of policy now used by the county.

Lassiter said GITS’ policy on operating vehicles during inclement weather is currently tied to whether or not county school buses are allowed to operate. Lassiter said it was difficult to evaluate the entire county. The school system, in canceling classes due to inclement weather, may do so based on safety issues that may or may not apply to GITS, she said.

That brought up another issue. Lassiter said GITS had received a complaint from a rider that needed transportation every day, even in cases of inclement weather.

“(The rider) asked if we could contract with other public transportation systems in the event we suspend operations due to inclement weather or offer a gas voucher for private transportation,” Lassiter said.

Jernigan stated publically that the issue with the one rider needing constant transportation was in regards to a member of her family that was on dialysis. He added that the rider had dialysis scheduled on the same day following the Christmas weekend storm that left over one foot of snow on the ground.

“Our policy is we don’t transport when the roads are bad or during hurricanes and other major weather events,” Jernigan said. “She was looking for an exception (to the policy). Our take on that was if the roads were too bad for any of our vans to travel, we have to think about the safety of our employees and the general public. We said if we’re closed, then we’re closed.”

Lassiter added that the rider had also requested transportation on normal county holidays and on weekends. Lassiter also said she was opposed to contracting out the transportation because the liability would fall back on GITS.

Jernigan said a recent decision by Gates County EMS and Rescue to offer non-emergency transportation provides another option to those needing such a service in a dire emergency.

The Commissioners, on a motion from Jordan and a second by Owens, approved incorporating the two policies, basically using the county’s inclement weather policy where the county manager makes the call on closing county offices. The policy reads that, if available, special accommodations may be made.

“The intent of this policy is to ensure the public that every effort will be made to provide transportation to life sustaining medical services as needed while providing for the safety of GITS staff and its clients,” the revised policy reads.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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