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Ford's office denies mayor ordered cellphone crackdown on TTC drivers

TTC passenger Alexia Schell took this photograph of a driver using a mobile phone behind the wheel of a bus on January 25, 2010.

The Toronto Transit Commission and the mayor's office are denying union allegations that Rob Ford ordered a "bizarre attack" on TTC drivers using cellphones on their breaks - even if they're dialling 911.

The president of the union representing most TTC workers sent a phone message Sunday warning his 10,000 members that management is enforcing a new policy of "firing" drivers who use their cellphones when they're not behind the wheel.

Bob Kinnear, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, said drivers could be fired for stepping onto a subway platform to call their spouses, check on a sick child or call 911 to report a crime.

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He highlighted the case of an unidentified female streetcar driver allegedly "fired on the spot" for snapping a cellphone photo of rider who spat on her. The vehicle was stopped at the time, Mr. Kinnear said.

"We have been informed from a confidential source that Mayor Ford's office has ordered this bizarre attack on TTC workers in order to try to provoke a reaction from the union," Mr. Kinnear said in his message. "They want to manufacture some justification for their demand that the government ram through the essential-service bill."

Mr. Ford and Toronto city council voted in December to ask the province to designate TTC workers as essential, prohibiting them from striking legally.

The McGuinty government agreed and is expediting legislation that will ban strikes before the ATU 113's current contract expires March 31.

The mayor's press secretary said the mayor hasn't ordered a crackdown on cellphone-wielding TTC drivers.

"It's a ridiculous accusation," Adrienne Batra said.

The TTC also said the mayor's office has nothing to do with how the transit agency disciplines its employees.

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"There's nothing to that whatsoever," said Brad Ross, spokesman for the TTC. "I can tell you that that is not the case. TTC management deals with employees every day. To suggest that the mayor or the mayor's office has given some sort of direction on this, there's nothing to that whatsoever."

Mr. Ross said there is no co-ordinated crackdown on TTC workers using cellphones, as long as they're not behind the wheel. He stressed, however, that it's important drivers on a break step off their vehicles to make a personal call so riders aren't left with the impression that TTC employees are wasting time on the clock.

"If you need to use your cellphone to call your family, for example, just get off the bus," he said. "I think Mr. Kinnear refers to an employee on a platform, for example. So I don't know of any cases where an employee is being disciplined for that kind of thing. If they are, then we need to look at those."

He added that he knew of no cases of drivers being disciplined for calling 911.

As for the female streetcar driver who took a picture of an abusive passenger, Mr. Kinnear said she was temporarily relieved of duty, not fired. She is back on the job now, he added.

Mr. Kinnear said in his message that the union won't tolerate drivers talking or texting on handheld devices while the vehicle is in motion. Three drivers were reportedly fired earlier this year after pictures surfaced in the media of them thumbing away behind the wheel.

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