Security Theater on the Boston T

Since a fatal crash a few years ago, Boston T (their subway) operators have been forbidden from using—or even having—cell phones while on the job. Passengers are encouraged to report violators. But sometimes T operators need to use their official radios on the job, and passengers can’t tell the difference. The solution: orange tape:

The solution? Goodbye, sober black; hello, bright orange, a hue so vivid that, MBTA officials hope, no one will mistake the radios for phones anymore. Workers at the agency’s car barns and garages are in the process of outfitting every handset in the fleet with strips of reflective tape emblazoned with T logos.


… a small but steady number of hot line tips have been found to be cases of drivers or operators communicating with dispatch by radio, according to video and operations-center call logs.

That is where the electric-orange tape should help, Davey said. Over the past two months, the tape has been applied to handheld radios on about 95 percent of the T’s 1,050 buses (each of which has one handset) and one-fourth of its nearly 210 double-ended Green Line trolleys, which have handsets at each end. The rest of the Green Line and the Orange, Blue, and Red line radios will follow.

Taisha O’Bryant, a Roxbury resident who serves as chairwoman of the T Riders Union, said she is more concerned with the frequency and reliability of bus service than the appearance of bus radios. But she said it is a good thing if a driver or operator can call dispatch in the event of a breakdown or service problem without worrying about appearing to talk on a cellphone, and she hailed the cellphone ban.

Of course, no T operator would ever think of putting bright orange tape on his cell phone. Because if he did that, the passengers would immediately know not to report him.

Posted on August 30, 2010 at 5:31 AM36 Comments


Marky August 30, 2010 5:38 AM

Forest for the trees. The issue with Boston–I lived there and rode the T for almost a decade–is that the T workers union refused to comply with any safety regulations due to the crashes. The former head of the T attempted to bring them in line, but they refused.

Hey, Bruce, why don’t you suggest a solution to the problem? Do you have any?

Bradley August 30, 2010 6:05 AM

So if accidents are caused by mobile phones, why aren’t they caused by using radios too?

Kai August 30, 2010 6:08 AM

One thing to keep in mind though is that being caught with the magic yellow tape on your mobile phone would be a career limiting move…

tsohlacol August 30, 2010 6:38 AM

@Bradley, the theory would be that radios can be used to speak with dispatch and other T vehicles, and only in a manner that would be audible to all cited individulas. Such public communication would discourage inappropritate (and therefore distracting) communications. on the other hand, a cell phone offers texting, picture taking, web surfing, video games, and other activities that require you to take your eyes off the road, to perform.

It could be argued that taking your eyes off the road is much more dangerous than talking, all other things being equal.

Craig August 30, 2010 6:38 AM

The trick (which apparently has worked) is to make valid communication devices (radios) look uncool. Yes, you could tape up your phone, but you take your phone with you when work is over. Untaping and retaping it every day just leaves it looking sticky and dirty.

Besides, who wants to look like they just stuck a safety cone in their ear?

Jonathan Wilson August 30, 2010 6:49 AM

Here in Perth, bus drivers have (and use) cellphones all the time on the job.
Sometimes they use the cellphone if they need to move away from the bus to talk.
Sometimes they use it if the radio is flaky or reception is not so good
Sometimes they use it if they need to discuss stuff not appropriate for the radio (its trivial to listen in on the radio using a scanner)

Quercus August 30, 2010 7:23 AM

Not the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I mean, reassuring the public isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
And in this case, they’re not changing any actual procedures to make them less safe in fact it may even make things safer, but at any rate the cost of reassurance is very low.

No One August 30, 2010 7:27 AM

The 2008 crash apparently resulted in one single death. Assuming there are twenty of these a year it doesn’t come anywhere close to the highway fatality rate, even if you look at it from a people-miles per year rate.

Why are we encouraging people to worry about something with such low odds?

Ian August 30, 2010 8:01 AM

@No One

Because it’s so easily preventable – and not just crashes, but service delays and (most commonly) bad driving. It sucks when the T conductor isn’t paying attention and then has to jam on the brakes at the last minute. Cell phone use by conductors has been discouraged for a long time, this isn’t new.

I’m no proponent of “if this can save one life” arguments, but in this case, nobody is inconvenienced by the tape OR the ban. It’s cheap, at least somewhat effective, and it doesn’t intrude on my rights/privacy or that of the T operators, who still can carry their phones in the case of a genuine emergency.

Matt August 30, 2010 8:16 AM

A common argument here is “Why is it unsafe to talk on a cell phone while driving, but OK to talk on a two-way radio?”

First, two-ray radios can be used without taking your eyes off the road/rail. Grab the mike and squeeze the PTT key.

Second, radio conversation is work-related–not about the latest episode of the Kardashians. So it’s psychological too.

I think cell phones are somewhat of a psychological addiction, when drivers are willing to risk their lives [and others’ lives] by answering a phone–or rummaging around in a purse in the back seat while driving. I never talk on my phone while I drive, and if my phone rings when I’m driving, tough. If the T is looking to hire drivers who refuse to use their phones, I’m game.

Andre LePlume August 30, 2010 8:33 AM

This actually sounds like an inexpensive, reasonable, yet imperfect solution to a not-so-major problem. Score one for MA, I say.

Peter Maxwell August 30, 2010 8:36 AM

I’m somewhat surprised it is an issue in the first place. In the UK – as far as know – driving any motor vehicle whilst using a mobile phone other than a properly fitted “hands-free” is an offense.

In five years in Edinburgh, I have not seen a single bus driver use a mobile phone while driving a bus. And to the best of my knowledge their radios are built into the bus cabins so not exactly removable in the first place.

Perhaps, it would be better to focus on attitudes rather than bits of bright coloured tape?

lazlo August 30, 2010 8:49 AM

Besides tsohlacol’s good points, the other significant but subtle difference is that the radios used are half-duplex, while cellphones are full duplex. I’m not an expert in the field, but from my own experience and the experience of those I’ve talked to about it, it takes a significant amount more concentration to talk and listen than to talk or listen.

Overall this seems like a good solution to me, I’m not even sure why it deserves the security theater label. The only real downside I can see is that it may encourage texting (which is more distracting but easier to conceal from passengers)

James August 30, 2010 8:56 AM


Although you’re right, I believe that the kind of person that will put an orange tape on their own cell phone will likely not care about being reported anyway. I think once there is a policy, there will be some violators but in reality most people want to keep their jobs and therefore will comply.

No One August 30, 2010 9:23 AM

@Ian: Sorry, I wasn’t being clear — Why are we encouraging the /passengers/ to worry about this (the reporting it part) considering how easy it is to make a misidentification, as is stated already?

I mean, I’m all for making it a job requirement to not be talking on the phone while on the job, but even though I’m not supposed to be looking at porn at work we don’t encourage people to spy on each other and report each other if someone looks at something “questionable”.

Steve August 30, 2010 9:26 AM

Heh, I saw this story on the local news – I wondered whether you’d pick it up.

The thing that got me aggravated is that there was no ‘journalism’. Nobody asked any tough questions about this (fairly obvious) exploit.

Steven Hoober August 30, 2010 9:47 AM

Anyone ever /listened/ to a 2-way radio conversation on a private network like this (much less worked on one)? They chat about TV, the weather, etc. Conversations about work get pretty involved, and frustrating, while you try to describe the same issue over and over again to an overly-multi-tasking dispatcher. There are actual transit accidents for which a contributing cause is poor communications on the official channels.

The problem with mobiles and distracted driving (etc.) is not hands/eyes off the road, but cognitive distraction. Any conversation, hands free, simplex (or half-duplex) or anything else, can become distracting. See examples above.

Also agree strongly that radios break, have even spottier coverage than mobile telephony, and… plenty of workers, for transit, public safety and so on are issued mobile phones as either a primary or secondary method of work communications.

A lot of this reminds me of banning personal
use of the web at work. As a manager, I never need to, because it’s just like taking long lunches or doing your nails instead of working. Manage your workers. I am not offended by trainmen having (maybe using!) their mobiles during work hours. But if it distracts from the job there are consequences. Which slide. A safety related violation is: suspensions. Second time: dismissal. By that sort of rulemaking, inappropriate (distracting) use of issued 2-way radios is met with the same punishment.

scottnottheotherscott August 30, 2010 9:50 AM

Good comments on the radio vs. cellphone question, but I really don’t think that it comes down to a technical difference between them.

It’s really just a simple cost/benefit issue. The reason radios are acceptable and cellphones are not is because radios are needed for the operators do do their job. Doing their job is an reasonable payoff for the risk. Letting spouses know what time they’ll be home is not.
Same risk, different benefit.

Me August 30, 2010 9:56 AM

Hacking this is trivial. Buy a cheap cell phone case, and put the bright orange tape on that. Slip the phone into the “work case” at the start of the shift, and slip it out at the end.

It doesn’t have to look anything like the real radios- the fink-line operator will ask if there was orange tape, and log the call as a false positive.

chiieddy August 30, 2010 10:09 AM

Even better was the incident about a week or so ago where the radios went down in the subway, and because they aren’t allowed cells, the operator had to borrow a passenger’s phone to reach operations so they didn’t hit someone.

MyView August 30, 2010 10:19 AM

Here’s what I think. Security theater or not, this will likely limit the amount of false reports and thus all the cost of the bureaucracy will likely decrease. And since we all know public agencies are so very efficient with money that it could actually save them some money even if the rules/safety results don’t change. Just a whim.

James August 30, 2010 10:26 AM

Couple of factual clarifications:

“The T” refers to -all- the services operated by the MBTA in Boston, which includes subways and also buses, and the main issue here is in fact bus driver distraction.

But even in the case of subway drivers, the T requires a higher level of attention from them than might be expected from, say, drivers on the London tube, because the T network is not all in dedicated tunnels. For instance, among the ‘subways’ affected are greenline trains – some of which run for part of their route as trams along the very busy Commonwealth Avenue, with frequent pedestrian crosswalks and stoplight intersections. In many stations on the T, passengers are required to cross the track directly to reach platforms in the opposite direction.

For all these reasons, efforts to reduce the risk of T drivers being distracted sound pretty worthwhile.

AlanS August 30, 2010 10:30 AM

Reading the rest of the article, The MBTA also appear to be doing spot-checks and have been firing employees violating the ban at a rate of about one employee per month since the ban came into effect. I suspect most drivers will calculate that the risk of getting caught with a phone with orange tape isn’t worth it.

Ian August 30, 2010 10:41 AM

@No One

Oh, I see – in that case, sorry. 🙂 To your actual point, then, I’ll agree. I haven’t seen or heard anything on this, but I only really take the Red/Silver(WTC) lines. I’d imagine this is more of an issue on the green/other silver and the buses, which I avoid like the plague. I’ll have to keep an eye out.

AlanS August 30, 2010 10:42 AM


The current policy stems from a Green Line crash near Park St in May 2009 that occurred while the driver was texting his girlfriend. Fifty people were injured. The bill supposedly added up to around $10M.

Progressive Thinker August 30, 2010 1:19 PM

I’m sorry but there’s no workable exploit.

The obvious next step is to make it illegal to put orange tape on a cell phone. I’m sure it’s already in the pipeline. Please. The proverbial “they” know what “they” are doing.

David Thornley August 30, 2010 1:34 PM

@No One: People in general are more afraid of risks when they don’t feel in control. A subway accident that kills one person will cause lots of people to avoid the subway and likely cause several traffic deaths.

Security theater can be worthwhile if it makes people make more rational choices, and this isn’t security theater, just a low-cost measure that reduces risk slightly.

cynrh August 30, 2010 3:51 PM

Of course, no T operator would ever think of putting bright orange tape on his cell phone.

Oh sure, and no T rider or co-worker would be smart enough to see through that, right?

What is your point, we all know that no security/risk measure is perfect. Isn’t the point of the measure that the most recalcitrant operators are going to look at dressing up their phone as an orange radio and say, Nah? A small measure of reduced risk achieved at the cost of a few hundred bucks of tape. You might even think that sort of fits in with your mantra of evaluating risk/security measures to cost.

Marky August 30, 2010 7:58 PM

@No One

You are an idiot for the first comment you posted. Get your head out of the stats room, and become a human being.

Just one death? Who are you? I lived in Boston during multiple T crashes. Do you understand what it feels like to get on the subway and not know if you or your friend is going to make it out OK? The one death does not even include the injured and the pure fear people felt.

David Thomas August 30, 2010 9:31 PM

What a lot of people are missing here, is that the choice is not between “prohibit cellphone use” or don’t, but a lot of different options. The previous stance was “Prohibit cell phone use, use cameras and call logs to cope with false positives;” the transition to taped radios reduces false positives, but may increase false negatives. As the number of false positives was expressly low to begin with, and false negatives can cost lives, I am sceptical of the change.

James August 30, 2010 9:57 PM

@ AlanS

Oh I don’t disagree with the policy. It makes sense from a variety of aspects. You’re paying people to work and you determine what they should do (within reason of course). Not allowing them to use on the phone when it interferes with their jobs is fair game.

What I find interesting is that people will give up the driver. If I was a rider I would because my life is on the line, but most people seem no to do the right thing. The good thing is that the operator is able to validate that the driver is actually using the phone for some work related purpose.

David Thornley August 31, 2010 8:46 AM

@Nick N: Unfortunately, your statistics are useless to evaluate relative risk. The relevant question is “What is the comparative risk if I drive or ride the train?”, and a useful statistic would be deaths per passenger-mile.

I don’t think most people in the US have access to a train system that will be useful day to day, whereas most of us travel by car frequently, and almost all of us walk places. There’s far less exposure to train risks.

Any statistics that show that motorcycling is three times as safe as driving can’t be good guides as to what transportation to choose.

Matt from CT September 1, 2010 9:55 PM

One thing to keep in mind though is
that being caught with the magic
yellow tape on your mobile phone
would be a career limiting move…

It’s the T.

I wouldn’t bet on it until someone is killed or more then two dozen people are injured.

It’s a giant sinkhole of political patronage — in addition to the normal rider fees and siphoning off a good part of the gas taxes from highways, there’s also a property tax levy for towns around Metro Boston, and 1/6th of the statewide sales tax collections get poured into the system.

Until very recently the bus drivers had a better pension — more money at a younger age — then public safety pensions for police & fire.

A new manager at one of their repair depots, who actually cared about doing a good job, noticed workers disappearing for several hours per shift. He eventually located a clandestine lounge complete with premium cable TV and broadband internet (fed by a several hundred yards long run of coax) that the employees had built and equipped to hide in during their workshifts.

It’s one of those places you truly have to be an outstanding screwup to be fired.

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