Vine riders who engage in egregious behavior – such hitting a driver, yelling obscenities or vandalizing Vine property – might find themselves banned from the bus.
That’s the new rule of the road. The Vine can now deal out temporary or permanent ridership suspensions if operators think bad behavior goes too far.
The Napa Valley Transportation Authority (NVTA) Board of Directors on Wednesday passed the new policy. It discussed the matter both then and on Sept. 18.
Vine riders already had to follow a code of conduct prohibiting such things as loud music, smoking and fighting. But, Public Transit Program Manager Matthew Wilcox said, the code had no teeth to it. Meanwhile, incidents of “unsavory behavior” on buses and at the transit center have risen.
“Everyone being safe – that’s the priority here,” Napa City Councilmember and NVTA Board Member Liz Alessio said.
The NVTA presented no statistics on bad Vine behavior. Asked by the Napa Valley Register, Wilcox mentioned a few flagrant incidents, such as a scuffle among teens at the transit center, an angry rider punching a bus window, a fistfight.
Rarely does the Vine have incidents that require a police response, Wilcox said. He described such bad behavior as being infrequent, but something that happens.
Physically abusing and injuring another rider or driver or purposefully destroying or vandalizing Vine property may result in immediate and permanent suspension, as well as possible criminal prosecution, under the new policy.
Other code of conduct violations may result in warnings. The third warning may result in a 30-day suspension from riding the bus.
Riders can appeal warnings or suspensions within 60 days of the incident. The NVTA executive director and the chair of the NVTA Board will decide the case. Wilcox said eye witness testimony and footage from cameras on the buses will be used to verify allegations.
Yountville Town Councilmember and NVTA Board member Kerri Dorman successfully pressed to increase the appeals period from the original 30 days and for more specifics on how appeals are handled.
She also convinced her colleagues to make a key language change. Instead of saying offenses “will” result in warnings and suspensions, as originally proposed, the rules say “may.”
“Because I mean a permanent suspension, if we’re talking about people who rely on public transportation, that’s a big takeaway,” she said at the Sept. 18 meeting.
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But St. Helena City Council member and NVTA Board Member Paul Dohring on Wednesday wanted to keep the word “will” in cases of somebody injuring someone else.
“I have a situation where I know somebody who was physically assaulted on the bus here,” he said. “So, for me to go back to that person and say ‘They may or may not be suspended’ is really difficult for me to swallow.”
Calistoga City Councilmember and NVTA Board Member Gary Kraus asked what the Vine will do if a person under suspension decides to ride the bus and refuses to leave.
Wilcox said the only thing the driver can do is ask people under suspension to leave. Drivers can’t force them off the bus. The other option is to call in the police to help.
“Meanwhile, you’re holding up the bus,” Kraus said.
Some NVTA board members noted that some Vine riders have mental health and addiction issues. They might rely on the bus to reach services at the county Health and Human Services Agency campus in Napa Valley Commons.
Questions arose of how these clients might be affected by the new policy, if they have a behavior problem on the bus.
Wilcox said this will be a learning process. Drivers will have improved training on how to handle people who aren’t completely in control of their emotions.
“It’s not like you break the rules and you’re chucked off,” Wilcox said. “We want to make sure we’re being considerate of all aspects of the community and that this is malicious intent, as opposed to somebody’s just having a bad day kind of thing.”
Bus drivers who run into riders with behavior problems while on the road can, if the situation becomes an emergency, press a panic button.
“What happens is then an alarm goes off in the dispatchers’ department,” said Cheryl Drake, general manager for Vine operator Transdev. “Nobody else can get through to the dispatcher. And nothing else happens until that dispatcher takes care of that issue with that driver.”
After two meetings, the NVTA Board of Directors finalized a suspension policy that Wilcox said could be a deterrent to bad behavior. Drivers can point to something and say that there are consequences.
“People may respond to that,” Wilcox said.