Guest Op-Ed: Reclaiming the National Narrative on Transit Safety

Guest Op-Ed: Reclaiming the National Narrative on Transit Safety

April 22, 2022  | John Ahlen, Accessible Services Program Manager, Lane Transit District

In our daily lives, we often take for granted the numerous protections in place to ensure we arrive safely at our destinations. The now ubiquitous seatbelt had decades of scientific research demonstrating its ability to save lives before federal requirements followed in 1968. This was not without controversy. At the time, opponents argued the decision to use a seatbelt should be a personal decision, some going so far as to cut the seatbelts out of their vehicles in protest. Others argued that seatbelts caused health problems and even contributed to fatalities.

While there remains political and philosophical debate regarding the use of masks, our primary responsibility remains the safekeeping of our passengers. What we do matters—members of our communities often start their day while on transit, which sets the tone for how we are expected to behave in shared spaces. Social pressure works.

It also means transit has been on the front lines of a vigorous national discourse, which rightfully acknowledges tensions between public safety and personal freedoms, and the rights and vulnerabilities of people with disabilities. Our role remains as a leader and author of our national narrative on how we think, behave, and believe.

Wearing a mask and getting a vaccination can be as easy as buckling a seatbelt. However, audacious and transformational leadership is needed to insist that appropriate safety measures are implemented when we have the authority to do so, just as it was to overcome the objections to requiring seatbelts. Speaking up for safety is a responsibility with which we’ve been entrusted. The following policies make this world a safer place:

  • Requiring masks while on transit property.
  • Requiring vaccinations for transit employees who come in public contact.

Transit has a proud history of serving older adults, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals. Many consciously weigh the potential health risks of sharing public spaces against the necessity of transportation for work, purchasing food, or receiving medical care.

We have all been impacted by the pandemic. When at their peak, outbreaks have forced us to reduce service, cancel service, and we have seen the loss of colleagues and loved ones. We must reasonably take steps to reduce harm, and do our part to avoid these periods of full hospitals and empty vehicles. Our passengers and employees look to us for both guidance and enforcement.

Transit has not fully codified these simple practices, or allow too many exceptions for them to be meaningful. While it may be simpler to wait and hope for the world to change, we could not in good conscience call ourselves leaders. Transportation is a place where innovation thrives, and we must instead wrestle with complications that would be more easily avoided. Examples include the likely necessity of bargaining with organized employees and carving out exceptions for people with disabilities. Transportation lags behind the private sector when requiring employee vaccinations. Businesses such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter, Walmart, and many others have required vaccinations for many employees. The National Football League went so far as to fine unvaccinated athletes. We are at a critical junction where transit merely needs to keep up with other industry leaders who already require vaccinations.

Exceptions for people with disabilities are important, and there already exists precedent to guide our decision making in transit. An Executive Order makes clear that significant consideration and additional safeguards are required before granting any reasonable modification to the mask mandate. This has been further clarified to be a “narrow exception” for those who “cannot wear a mask related to the disability… It is not meant to cover persons for whom mask-wearing may only be difficult.” In these rare exceptions, we may still choose to leverage additional options in our tool belts, such as face shields and specialized paratransit.

We must have these difficult conversations. You are now challenged to not just imagine but enact local policies that proactively safeguard public health. On November 15, 2021 Congress enacted the largest infrastructure and transportation bill in U.S. history. We have all the resources and empirical evidence we need to get started. Now let’s buckle up and get where we need to go together.

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