Bus Driver Appreciation Day: A fitting tribute to one of the most stressful jobs in the world.

How we get from here to there.
Jan. 26 2011 7:08 AM

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

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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.)

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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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