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School bus driver was right to be fired for talking on phone behind the wheel, B.C. arbitrator rules

A bus driver who was caught briefly talking on her cellphone while driving children home in northern B.C. last fall was right to be fired, according to a labour arbitrator.

The woman had worked part-time as a driver in the Chetwynd area for nearly two years and had a good record when she was fired last November.

The arbitrator found the driver deserved to lose her job for two reasons: She broke a “clear and unequivocal” ban on distracted driving in B.C. and she did not appear to take responsibility for her mistake.

“While I do not consider the grievor’s actions to be malicious or show intent to harm, her actions show a serious lack of judgment concerning children in these circumstances,” arbitrator Christopher Sullivan wrote on Oct. 13.

“The behaviour of the grievor in this case is incompatible with her duties, the essence of which are to ensure the safe transport of school-age children.”

Driver spoke on phone for 30 seconds

The driver was caught on the phone while taking students down Highway 29 towards Boucher Lake Road on Nov. 16.

It was a cold, clear day, and the road was clear despite a “great deal of snow” having fallen the previous day.

As the driver passed the east end of Moberly Lake, a student sitting directly behind her took a photo of her holding her cellphone up to her left ear. 

The student showed his parents, who told the driver’s boss.

The driver was fired within the week for violating the company’s internal policy, which bans drivers from using electronic devices — at any time, for any reason — while driving.

The district municipality of Chetwynd, B.C., pictured in early 2019. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Her union, Teamsters Local 31, challenged the firing on her behalf.

During arbitration, the driver argued she had good reason to be on the phone. 

She said she heard over the radio that a co-worker’s bus had become stuck in the snow with children inside. The driver thought she would ask her husband to help, as he had with a different bus that had become stuck earlier in the day.

She asked her eight-year-old son, who was on the bus, to call his dad.

The boy had trouble explaining where his dad could find the stuck bus, so he passed the phone to his mom.

Phone records showed the entire phone call was roughly three minutes long. The driver’s husband estimated his wife’s portion of the call was only about 30 seconds.

Rule following is a ‘2-way street’

Despite the driver’s good intentions, the arbitrator said the rules around phone use are clear — but he also took particular issue with the driver’s reaction to the child who showed the photo to their parents.

“It is a defining feature of this case that, rather than owning up to her wrongdoing, the grievor expresses a sincere feeling of betrayal by the student who acted properly in bringing it to the attention of a responsible adult,” wrote Sullivan.

“While the grievor talked to the students about following rules and being respectful, she showed little interest in this being a two-way street, quite the opposite,” he continued.

“The grievor’s sole interest in having the student first discuss her misconduct with her would be to give her an opportunity to convince the student … not to disclose the evidence they had against her, including to their own parents.

“This response reveals a fundamental underlying quality that would properly raise parental concern about the school bus driver transporting their children.”

Sullivan also said the driver could have parked or pulled over to make the phone call safely — something the driver admitted she would do if she had the chance to do it over.

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