The Riehl World: Outsourcing Safety

by Richard J. Riehl on July 17, 2009

When I learned North County Transit District directors are thinking about privatizing the operation of our local buses, I thought about my recent experience as a passenger on an outsourced bus during Carlsbad’s Village Faire a couple of months ago.

My wife and I took the shuttle downtown from the Poinsettia Coaster Station.

The driver was courteous, had a fine sense of humor and showed by his driving that he cared about getting us there safely. The return trip with another driver, however, was a white-knuckler.

As we boarded the bus at the downtown station, the driver was talking animatedly on his cell phone. I figured he was updating a dispatcher on his location. But when he continued the conversation, steering with one hand, as he drove through the heavy downtown traffic, it became evident it was a personal call. When my wife was about to ask him about that, he put his cell phone down.

We were relieved he’d be able to focus his attention on driving.
When we stopped at a red light, however, he returned to his cell phone. This time it was in his lap, his thumbs dancing across the keys. A horn sounded behind us, an impatient driver signaling the light had changed. I leaned forward to ask the driver if he was texting, my mind flashing back to news reports of fatal accidents involving cell phones. Caught in the act, he said, “No,” put his cell phone away, reached for his cup of soda and sipped from it as he steered with his free hand for the rest of the trip.

Our e-mailed complaint to City Hall was answered within a day by Kira Linberg, the City Manager’s Office secretary, who told us Kennedy Faires had hired the buses. A day later, an e-mail from Brian Roth of Kennedy explained the driver was employed by Five Star Tours. He agreed what we saw was inappropriate for public safety, thanked us for calling it to their attention, said they’d never had a complaint about Five Star, and promised it would never happen again.

As it turns out, we’re not the only ones who’ve been unhappy with Five Star. In June 2004, the National Labor Relations Board ruled the company engaged in an unfair labor practice in a contract with a Massachusetts school district. The firm’s bid for bus services was $300,000 lower than the contract held by a company already serving the district, leading the union to ask whether the non-union firm would cut driver wages and benefits. When 11 drivers wrote letters of complaint to the district, Five Star refused to hire them, admitting in court the only reason they weren’t hired was because they had criticized the company.

We heard nothing from Five Star about our complaint. Was the driver fired, disciplined, retrained, or just told that a couple of grumpy passengers had questioned his driving skills?

As North County Transit District directors consider cost savings through outsourcing, will it be at the expense of public safety?

Richard J. Riehl writes from Carlsbad. Contact him at

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