The Most Stressful Job on the Planet?

For bus drivers, streets are crowded. Passengers are cranky. And there’s always the chance you might get punched.

Also see a Magnum Photos gallery of bus drivers

Last month, in a grossly egregious case of backseat driving, a woman was arrested after she attacked a New York City bus driver for, as she claimed, “driving too slow.” It’s hardly the first time a passenger has taken out their frustration with Gotham’s traffic on the driver; indeed, a December 2008 MTA study found nearly 60 physical assaults that year, not to mention dozens of cases of being spat on—and heaps of verbal abuse.

It’s not just New York: Research in the United Kingdom has found that bus drivers report fear of physical assault as their job’s biggest stressor. With good reason: In 1993, for example, more than 1,500 assaults were reported. A 2000 survey found that British transport workers had the highest fear of assault of any occupation, with an actual risk more than four times that of any other job.

That’s hardly the end of bus drivers’ concerns. Spending hours driving in congested traffic, subject to time pressures (and passenger complaints) made worse by that same traffic, is a potent stress cocktail. Drivers face many external pressures but often have relatively little control over their environment, a combination that makes bus driving, as The Journal of Occupational Health Psychologywrites, “a classic example of a high-stress occupation.” One Dutch psychologist, noting the competing demands for staying on schedule, driving safely, and accommodating passengers (for whom the ideal bus journey has been wonderfully classified as “pleasurable without being ecstatic“), has described a kind of Sartrean dilemma: Make the schedule by driving more recklessly, or drive safely and irritate the passengers. “Whichever alternative the driver adopts, he or she will constantly have a conscious or subconscious feeling of inadequacy.”

This mental toll, combined with the physical rigors of driving itself, leaves bus drivers suffering from elevated levels of blood pressure, adrenaline and salivary cortisol (as do most people with an unpredictable commute), and hypertension. As Cornell University’s Gary Evans, who has conducted many studies on the occupational health of bus drivers, notes, “over twenty epidemiological studies of city bus drivers reveal excess rates of mortality and morbidity for heart disease and gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal disorders.” Add to that any injuries sustained in crashes—roughly half of which, research has found, involve the bus being struck from behind (by confused or impatient drivers). Perhaps understandably, bus drivers take more sick leave than people in other occupations (and two to three times the population average, by one finding).

Given this litany of challenges and poor outcomes, I was curious to talk with an actual driver and find out: Is it really all that bad? I was also curious to see how bus drivers—for whom the road is a workplace—view the wider world of traffic. That’s when fate waded into my Twitter stream, in the form of Matt Leber, otherwise known as Velobusdriver, who describes himself as a “former techie turned Metro bus driver, bike commuter, and renewable energy enthusiast.” Leber, who spent a decade working for Microsoft, among other things, is a part-time driver for King County Metro Transit (serving Seattle and environs). As his Twitter handle indicates, he’s also a cycling enthusiast. I figured the rather unusual cyclist/bus driver/car driver combo would give him special insight into intra-modal relations.

Leber, a bus commuter when he worked at Microsoft, says a longtime curiosity about bus driving, as well as knowing a Metro driver at his church, led him to respond in 2005 to an ad for part-time drivers. “I’ve enjoyed bus driving,” he says, “because it offers a lot of variety of work assignments, areas to drive in, and people to interact with.” He currently works afternoons—three-and-a-half hours a day. This, plus the fact that he works in Seattle, a region known for its friendly drivers, might not make him Everydriver—his job may be less stressful than that of a full-time New York City driver. But his stories reflect in certain ways the research that’s been done on bus drivers in other cities and illuminate small truths that have not been studied.

On time and traffic pressure, for example, Leber says that while Metro is “constantly urging us to be safe and not rush for time,” and that his employer applies “absolutely no pressure” for drivers to meet schedules, there are nonetheless pressures to stay punctual. “Passengers can be grumpy, or you may arrive late to a layover”—that pause between the driver reaching the end of line and restarting the route—”putting buses out of sequence,” he says. “I’ve had to circle the block when another bus was in my layover spot.” And there are physical ailments brought on by extended driving. (Conversations with fellow drivers, he says, reveal a litany of knee replacements and back troubles.) Leber notes, however, that things are looking up on this front; Metro provides physical therapy in its health benefits (yoga classes were cut for budgetary reasons), and newer buses are more ergonomically forgiving. “I hear stories from drivers who have been around 20 or 30 years about driving the old buses and what they would do to your body.”

There are more minor hassles. People edge past the yellow line before the bus has stopped, blocking Leber’s view of the mirrors. Or take collecting fares. “I’ll admit to being frustrated,” he says, “when I show up to a stop with a large number of passengers only to have the first person in line pull out their wallet and start fishing around for cash or worse, change.” Reminding people that having fares ready keeps the bus on time “can be tricky,” he says, “a source for less-than-positive customer interaction.” (A new “ORCA” card—not to be confused with London’s “Oyster”—is helping matters.) Then there’s the passengers who view him as an omniscient guide to the entire bus system, and query him about the finer points of distant routes or the arrival time for another bus. “Most of us try to be helpful when we can, but we are not customer service with a map and schedules for the entire system,” he says. “In short, we have no information about other buses available to us—other than what passengers do. In fact, if they have a cell phone, they have more information than us.” These queries take on a new weight when the bus is in motion. Passengers may think drivers are somehow equipped to multitask, perhaps through experience. But research suggests the opposite: Bus driving is a “high workload” activity, even more so than conventional driving, and when combined with secondary duties, bus drivers may be subject to even greater distraction risk. Or, as Leber says, ‘I’ve had people thrust a transfer into my face, while I’m driving, and ask, ‘Is this still valid?’ “

As for the actual driving, Leber says he prefers driving the bus to his Prius. “The visibility down the sides of the bus are far better.” But buses have quirks. Greater mass plus the slight delay of air brakes means, he says, means bus drivers have to keep four to six seconds following distance—which drivers of cars routinely eat up, often with negative consequences. Add to that the greater turning radii, and special challenges like the overhead wires found on “trolley buses.” (On those, failure to activate signals while going through “special work,” or places where wires cross, can tear down the structure.)

Then there are the hazards of traffic. Leber compares his driving style to the moment in the film Clear and Present Danger when Jack Ryan has exited the plane in Colombia. As he describes, “his security detail exit in front of him with their eyes moving in all directions, looking for danger.” When approaching intersections with a car stopped on a side street, he says, even though the bus may have the right of way, “we typically pull our foot off the gas and ‘hover’ in case the car suddenly pulls out in front—it happens more often than you’d think.” Leber measures the severity of sudden stops or other tense situations by passengers’ reaching for hand-holds. “You can hear rings hitting the poles.” Buses are also loaded with blind spots, and he says drivers “rock ’n’ roll” to see past mirrors, the fare box, and window posts. Pedestrians are particularly hard to see, especially when coming from unexpected places. His advice is simple: “It basically all boils down to only approaching the bus from the curb. Don’t run next to the bus, and don’t reach out to touch the bus to get the driver’s attention.”

While driving a bus has provided a unique window onto the landscape of traffic, Leber says it’s changed his behavior in other modes. He says he drives the speed limit, or just below it, which he says “dramatically reduces stress” (though, he suggests, it may raise that of his wife). On foot, he no longer runs for buses. And as a cyclist with more with 30 years of experience, he says bus driving awakened him to “just how invisible we cyclists are on the road.” (He’s since shifted to wearing lights during the day, in addition to night.) He sees parallels in the way “a minority of rushed drivers” act around buses and cyclists. “They will make risky passes around corners, against oncoming traffic, or through crosswalks and crowded pedestrian areas, simply because they don’t want to be stuck behind a bus,” he says, while some drivers “kind of freak out” when they see a cyclist, passing too closely or honking even when there’s plenty of room.

One Seattlite—I’m not sure whether he’s been on Leber’s bus—has praised that city’s drivers for being “not only skilled, but generally friendly and thoughtful” and has recommended that March 18, the anniversary of the date Pascal founded the world’s first urban bus service, the Carosses à Cinq Sous, be declared that city’s official “Bus Driver Appreciation Day.” I think it’s a fine idea. Indeed let’s make it a national affair. I only ask that you express your appreciation when the bus isn’t in motion.

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