What's a Para-transit Driver?
“Recruiting Para-transit Operators” the sign said. That sounded interesting. But what the heck was a para-transit operator? The company representatives, in their snappy well pressed blue uniforms, explained a para-transit operator was more or less a glorified van driver. What's that old adage, If it sounds too good to be true, It probably is.
I discovered they did lots more, They transported handicapped and disabled clients. This included those in wheel chairs, mentally retarded, blind, deaf, terminally ill, or anyone else not able to fend for themselves.
It sounds easy doesn’t it? Read on misinformed individuals .I originally thought this was for me! I was already an experienced commercial driver.
To my surprise I was called in for an interview and hired the next day. This was too easy. There had to be a catch. I was right. There was an intensive eight week course.Very intensive. Did I mention this was a new company being set up from scratch? Meaning there were no established routes or regular clients. And none of us knew which end of Seattle was which?
The Termenally Ill
A cardinal rule of para-transit driving is not getting too close to any of your clients. This can be extremely difficult when dealing with someone on a daily basis. As mentioned earlier some of our passengers were terminal. You didn’t always know which ones.
One of my first regular clients was a sweet, little lady who must have been mostly Indian. She was rather young to be a grandmother and confined to a wheel chair. I remember thinking I wished I had a grandmother like her, not that I didn’t love my own.
In the beginning, this lady was vibrant and full of life. She always had a kind word and sometimes brought home made treats for me. Over time her condition worsened and I watched as her health slowly deteriorated.
Then one day as I arrived and began preparations to load her wheel chair, Her granddaughter came out. I was informed our services would no longer be needed. She had passed away the night before from Alzheimer's disease. She only was one of many clients that passed on, but the one I remember best.
However, not all experiences were this sad. Some were humorous and others just plain serious. For example, one mentally challenged eleven year-old boy wouldn’t stay seated regardless of how well you strapped his seat belt on. He must have had a tapeworm because he was always hungry. Once the bus began moving, this lad would slip out of his seat and go behind the tied down wheel chairs at the rear. The wheel chair clients usually had their knapsacks hung on the back of their chairs. The child would rummage through their knapsacks searching for something to eat knowing they couldn’t stop him since they were strapped in. The hollering would begin and I’d have to pull over to strap him in again.
This practice soon got tiring. After much thought an idea came to me. I took two of the extra wheel chair seat belt straps, crossed them over his front and buckled them behind his seat where he couldn’t reach. Illegal maybe…but still safer than having him wandering around a moving vehicle. I was lauded by my peers, who had also had the client, for my ingenuity.
Mastering Many Subjects
Prospective drivers had to master a gauntlet of subjects as well as being re-certified as a commercial driver. Six defensive driving courses, map reading, first aid, CR, Patient transport techniques, accident evacuation measures, insurance and accident protocol, proper wheel chair handling and tie down, disruptive passenger management, vehicle maneuvering course. The list would take another paragraph but you get the idea. Fortunately, I had already been trained in the majority of the subjects and breezed through the training.
Although I scored high on all the tests, everybody knows in practicality, things are quite different than on paper. And anyone familiar with Seattle is aware the “Emerald City” was built on one-way and dead end streets. The problem was Seattle was ever growing. This meant the maps you were issued yesterday might not be correct today. It’s very frustrating to a driver trying to locate an address not on the map.
A typical day began about 6:00 AM. Most drivers had to commute anywhere from 20-60 miles just to get to work. And anybody familiar with the the morning and quitting time rush hours in Seattle knows that means you get up at 4:30 am and fortunate if you make it back home by 8:30 pm. When the drivers arrived at work they picked up their route sheets for the day. Trips were scheduled approximately fifteen minutes between pickups and drop-offs, sometimes with multiple pickups on the way before the first drop-off. Most clients were headed for doctor appointments, dialysis treatments and the like. You could not be late, as it could mean a life or death situation for some clients.Therefore, there was no time to slack off. An off duty driver could be called into an on-duty status at anytime. (Hey! I might be on to something here!!)
After about a year I was able to look at an address and know exactly where it was without having to consult a map. I also knew exactly how long it would take to get there…within one minute. Hey! Nobody’s perfect.
I drove for this company about three years and had many unusual and sometimes sad experiences. One comes to mind that was especially upsetting.
Another restless boy, who refused to stay seated, gave me quite a scare. We were headed down I-5 at a good clip when a buzzing noise started and horns began blaring. My mind raced trying to figure out what was wrong. The intensive training kicked in…buzzing noise…door open…where? I glanced in the rear view mirror. There was the boy with the back emergency door wide open, gleefully waving to passengers in passing cars. It was about the time of this incident I began seriously considering another career field.
Many of my duties were routine and without incident such as leading blind passengers or pushing wheel chairs. But not a day went by without something of interest to report.
Such was the case of a large, hulking grown man with an eight year-old mentality. Our first meeting didn’t fare too well. His mother brought him aboard the van and sat him down, at which point she got off. I proceeded to buckle him in, which apparently he didn’t take kindly to and a struggle ensued. The man was strong and it was all I could do to restrain him from beating me savagely about the head and shoulders. He refused to sit back down. What to do? Once again, my intensive training kicked in. I reached over, while still locked in struggle, and began honking the horn. The mother came back out, saw what was happening and came to my rescue. In a loud, stern voice she commanded her son to sit back down. With a sheepish, hound dog look, he did as ordered. Fortunately, I never had any more trouble from him.
Eventually the job began to take a toll on me, and at the same time ruined my marriage of 21 years. I seriously considered hiring my own company to take care of a worn out, burnt out, shell of a driver who had been rated as the #1 driver out of 108 others. I was also next in line for promotion to route supervisor or main dispatcher, whichever i preferred. After all, I was one of the original pioneers setting up routes and instructing newcomers to the business. Of course many quit soon after realizing the job was a powder keg of stress. Not something for the timid or weak of heart.
I am a former Marine NCO and have undergone many trials and tribulations in my time, including many combat situations. I am now 63. If I could reenlist in the Corps and go to another hot spot combat scenario, I would rather do that then sign on for another term as a para-transit driver!!