This post is a care package for my colleagues and anyone else who was scared or otherwise put off by a recent spate of exaggeration in some recent newsmedia depictions of Metro buses as dangerous places. Neither of this week’s broadcasts emphasized they were:

  • Actually sourcing their video from a ten-year period (which represents over a billion rides); or that
  • Metro’s experienced a 53% reduction in assaults during that period (despite a 17-percent increase in ridership); and has
  • Received from APTA a national 2018 Bus Safety & Security Excellence Award for their strategies in doing so;
  • Nor, of course, did they explore the complexity of behind-the-scenes legwork required to address security issues with care and consideration for all involved.

Because that’s boring.

We expect TV news, what with its tendency toward framing all events as disasters, to have only a tangential relationship with truth, but I confess to being most disappointed when it takes advantage of what’s best in us—that is, our capacity for concern and care for others. Who wouldn’t worry, after all, when headlines tell us of “dozens of assaults” and passengers “afraid to wait for the bus”?

It’s important to remember that news outlets have agendas. They want your money, and they get it by propagating anxiety. I know how easily avoidable violent incidents are on the bus. I know the dirty little secrets—or more accurately, the boring little secrets:

–That crime in Seattle has been plummeting (sources below), and continues to plummet, even as our population increases;
–That nearly all operator assaults are fare-related, which is another way of saying they’re avoidable;
–That a lot of the “dozens” of assaults are the same small but vocal group of operators getting assaulted over and over again, because they go out there treating passengers a certain way and get consistent results (before you call me judgmental—I happen to like some of these cranks);
–That new drivers are given quicker, briefer training that doesn’t spend enough time on deescalation tactics;
–That driver friends of mine have been assaulted because they were harsh, high and mighty with their passengers;
–That our drivers aren’t getting the refresher training, night focus groups, or ongoing deescalation training that they used to.

These are the boring truths. They’re not flashy or exciting, and voicing them is a heresy because it sounds like I’m saying people deserve their straits. I am not saying that. Nobody deserves to get stuck in those hard places. I’ve been there myself. ​I am not saying everything is the driver’s fault. I’m saying, sometimes it’s not that simple. Don’t pretend you’re helpless, or that there isn’t more to the story.

You, the operator, have more control than you could possibly realize, and it’s to your significant benefit to take advantage of that. Respect the passengers—especially the ones whom you think deserve it the least. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s better to engage with people. Say hi. Ask ’em how they’re doing. Friendly eye contact goes a long way. Frowning silence can be misconstrued as judgment. People like being acknowledged.

But once in a hundred times, it’s better to not say anything. I’ve learned the hard way that being snarky and trying to have the last word is a petty waste of time that gets you in trouble fast. It’s not who I want to be, and I’m thankful for the learning opportunity. Yes, I’ve had a scrape or two out there. Why? Because I opened my big mouth. I know better now. Sometimes it’s not your fault, and sometimes it’s complicated. Either way, take a moment to think about what you’d do differently to get along next time. You will see these people again. It’s not about fault; it’s about how to prevent the event from happening in the first place. Getting along. We’re supposed to be building community here, not putting up walls or acting out of pride. 

Safety is a serious matter, and there’s no one script for every situation. But being respectful will solve so many problems for you. I hear the most fear-based comments and reactionary proposals from my friends who haven’t driven a lot of night work downtown. Those who’ve actually done so know there’s not a lot to be afraid of. They know your strongest tool is good customer service, and that fear-based solutions like barriers interfere with your ability to use your strongest tool. TV news wouldn’t know, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be in their business interests to tell you. I don’t fault them. I have friends who work in TV, and they know the dynamic I’m referring to; it’s just part of the game.

Don’t fall for it, is all I’m saying, Consider the source, the motive. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but if I may humbly say so, I speak from experience, not articles or fear or hot air. I’m out there every night.

And I don’t have an agenda. 

I’ve driven the 7 at night, five nights a week, for over five years. That’s not something drivers do. If KIRO-TV’s allowed to tell you the worst of the worst and without context, I’ll allow myself the liberty of sharing everything leftover: the innumerable nights where nothing happened, the nights and days where stuff did happen and you solved it, not with fear but with calculation and consideration, often preemptively. 

Thoughtful, rational analysis that makes decisions after considering all angles isn’t exciting. It’s not newsworthy. But it is undeniably the best way to go about addressing issues this nuanced. You’ll hear a lot of shrill voices going on about these topics.

I’m writing this because I wanted you to know there’s more to the story than the loudest voice. 

For my colleagues:

For all of us:

Article Author

Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.