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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
UTA Buses navigate state street Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. UTA is having drivers work 13-14 hour days, but for only 8 hours pay.
It's just a dangerous job. You need to be really focused and on your game and it's hard to do with the schedule that they give you. —UTA driver

SALT LAKE CITY — Split shifts and increased pressure to be on-time is making driving a bus more hectic and a lot less safer than it should be, according to one driver for the Utah Transit Authority.

"I think most of us are exhausted," said the driver, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job. She begins her day around 6 a.m., takes a four-hour break in the middle of the day, and continues on a different route until about 7 p.m. Many of her colleagues do the same.

"I know a lot of drivers who are functioning on five hours of sleep because of the schedule," she said, adding that some drivers "go thirsty all day" because they can't be bothered with having to go to the bathroom while on their tightly scheduled route.

UTA employs more than 930 bus, light rail and train operators and the majority of them are employed full-time, according to UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter. Because of the nature of the business and the fact that commuters make up most of the ridership, many workers are forced to work split shifts, sometimes spread over up to 15 hours in a day.

Peak ridership happens at 7:10 a.m. and at 4:58 p.m., opposite ends of the day, which necessitates the split shift.

"If there is a way to avoid split shifts in this industry, we'd like to know what it is," he said. "It's really the only way you can maintain a lot of full-time shifts and still put the service on the road."

Carpenter said conditions for drivers have been the same over the years and while the schedule might be a challenge for some, "all of them recognize that they may have to work a split shift."

Of the total number of drivers, Carpenter said about 48 percent currently work split shifts. Five years ago, 44 percent were saddled with the inconvenient schedule, but more routes were offered then as well.

In between shifts, drivers have access to a lounge that is comfortably equipped, Carpenter said. A Salt Lake City facility has four cots, with disposable sheets, where drivers can catch some shut-eye before taking off on the next route. Each facility also offers a gym and comfortable places to sit.

The anonymous driver said it is often overcrowded and noisy.

In her more than 10 years with the company, she said she's noticed a change. Already time-crunched schedules are continually compacted and dissected, "forcing us to drive a lot more aggressively" to keep on schedule, she said. And supervisors are constantly checking up on driver performance.

"It's not what I signed up for," the woman said.

Carpentar said "many of our operators prefer a split shift," and if it is an issue, it has yet to be brought up in contract negotiations with the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union, which represents UTA drivers, mechanics and parts workers.

That may change.

"Have we had operators complain? Yes. And we're trying to address that through contract negotiations," said Rod Dunn, president of the local union chapter. He and another union official agreed that stressful schedules can lead to unsafe conditions on the road.

On Tuesday, a UTA bus hit and killed an 82-year-old man who was crossing a downtown street. The driver of that bus began her shift that day at 6 a.m. and had just returned to work after two days off. An internal review and safety evaluation is underway at UTA and police are continuing an investigation of the incident, but Carpenter said, "it did not happen under unusual circumstances."

In November 2010, another man was killed while crossing a Salt Lake street. Others have been injured by buses, some crossing streets against the signal. Carpenter said, though, that the safety record for buses is "very good."

The anonymous driver said it is surprising more accidents don't happen.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't say my prayers before I go out every morning, that I'm safe and I'm not involved in an accident," she said. "Driving a bus is a dangerous job as it is. You're going in and out of traffic, to load and unload passengers constantly, and nobody wants to be behind a bus, so cars are always cutting you off. You have passengers who are running late and going to miss the bus so they're running in front of you. It's just a dangerous job. You need to be really focused and on your game and it's hard to do with the schedule that they give you."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com, hollenhorst@desnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards