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MBTA tightens no-phone policy for drivers

A bus crash last month left an MBTA bus dangling over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton.

Newton Fire Department

A bus crash last month left an MBTA bus dangling over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton.

A month after a dramatic crash that left an MBTA bus dangling over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority announced harsher punishments for drivers caught with a cellphone while on the job.

Under the new policy, which T officials believe to be the strictest of any major transit agency in the country, any bus or train operator with a cellphone in his or her possession will automatically be suspended for 30 days and be recommended for firing.

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To enforce the no-cellphone policy, T officials will add a cellphone check to the daily sign-in procedures for bus and train operators. The sign-in sheets that drivers must complete upon arriving at work will include a box that drivers must initial, saying that they do not have a prohibited electronic device in their possession.

While drivers have been barred from carrying cellphones on duty since 2009, the past punishment was lighter: a 10-day suspension and a recommendation for firing after two violations. The new, stiffer punishment for carrying a cellphone now matches that for a driver caught talking on a phone or texting while on duty.

MBTA general manager Beverly A. Scott said in a statement that the new policy is meant to “reinforce our commitment to safety through the implementation of clear and strict regulations.”

“It’s absolutely essential that we do everything we can to help ensure that each customer’s trip is a safe one,” Scott said.

The change comes after the May 18 crash in Newton, in which the driver is accused of having a cellphone in her hand when the MBTA bus careered around a corner and slammed into the guardrail on the Washington Street overpass. Seven people were injured.

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The driver, Shanna Shaw, 43, originally told investigators that she was unable to maneuver the bus because her allergies had caused her to sneeze uncontrollably. Surveillance footage from inside the bus later showed that Shaw was holding a cellphone while behind the wheel, MBTA Transit Police said in an affidavit. Shaw was terminated from her job last month, and pleaded not guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice. Her next court appearance is scheduled for June 24.

The cellphone policy change was announced in a safety order signed by five top MBTA officials and distributed to the agency’s staff last week.

“Recent events have shown we are still prone to lapses in judgment,” the safety order said, “which is clearly unacceptable in the authority’s current safety culture.”

The safety order also reminded staff that there is a hotline available to employees’ close relatives, so employees can easily and quickly be reached in case of an emergency.

Officials at Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589, the union that represents bus and subway drivers, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

The T has developed a reputation for being among the most aggressive transit agencies in the nation when it comes to prohibiting cellphone use by operators. In 2009, a Green Line crash that injured 49 people and destroyed three trains, caused by a trolley driver who was texting his girlfriend, prompted T officials to implement a zero-tolerance policy on cellphone use.

Other transit agencies have followed suit, though many still allow drivers to carry a phone in a pocket or a bag, as long as it is turned off and they do not use it while driving.

On the Los Angeles Metro system, bus and train operators are banned from using cellphones while driving, but may keep a phone to use in a life-threatening emergency if the vehicle is stopped and the vehicle’s communication system is not functioning. On the New York City bus system, drivers caught using a cellphone on the job are suspended for 20 days after the first offense. If a second offense occurs within a two-year period, the employee is fired; if a second offense occurs more than two years later, the employee is slapped with a 30-day suspension, said Kevin Ortiz, spokesman for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“It’s different for subways, but the same premise applies: You cannot use a cellphone while operating an MTA bus, vehicle, or train,” Ortiz said.

Though the MBTA’s policy now contains harsher punishment than other agencies, other systems have been more aggressive in enforcement. Last year, New York conducted a weeks-long undercover operation, sending surveillance teams out on buses to catch illegal behavior, such as texting while driving or running red lights. During that operation, 370 drivers were cited.

Joe Pesaturo, MBTA spokesman, said T officials had no plans to conduct any undercover operations or administer preshift patdowns. But, he said, officials hope that passengers will help keep an eye on drivers who may be disobeying the rules.

“The MBTA continues to encourage its hundreds of thousands of daily customers to report anything out of the ordinary,” Pesaturo said.

Related coverage:

MBTA fires driver who crashed bus in Newton

MBTA driver pleads not guilty in Newton bus crash

MBTA driver’s cellphone at issue in Newton bus accident

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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