Nature can be a formidable and unforgiving foe

This column published as "The Call of Nature" in January 2020 issue

David Matthews / January 02, 2020
David Matthews
When you gotta go, you gotta go. Unless you’re a bus driver, in which case you gotta hold it.

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the largest union representing transit workers in the U.S. and Canada, released a survey in October revealing that 79% of drivers feel there is not enough time built into their routes to use the bathroom.

As a result, 83% of drivers report “holding it in” while driving, 68% avoid drinking and eating anything during their shifts, and 26% admitted to soiling themselves on the job. 

Holding in urine for an extended period of time can have serious consequences for drivers, including urinary tract infections, bladder infections, and kidney stones. Passengers are also unnerved to see their driver sweating heavily, doing a pee-pee dance, or just openly sobbing.  

A lack of bathroom access also creates unsafe conditions for both passengers and pedestrians. A 2010 laboratory study even found that not responding to an extreme urge to go affected attention and thinking as much as staying awake for 24 hours or having a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, which is over the legal limit for commercial drivers in 49 states.

Drivers often receive pushback if they do try to take a break. Over 16% of drivers claimed they were warned, disciplined, or retaliated against for requesting to use the bathroom, and 10% stated that they’ve had a bathroom request flat-out denied by a supervisor. 

The ATU believes that these conditions are contributing to the industry-wide shortage of drivers and high rates of absenteeism and turnover.

“If you address this problem now you’ll have less turnover,” said ATU President John Costa. “How many people want to work for a company where you can’t go to the bathroom without having an issue or getting assaulted?” 

Breaking up is hard to do

The state of Minnesota is fighting its own battle against the forces of nature, and it recently rolled out a new weapon: ice-breakers.

These two-ton rollers covered with carbide-tipped spikes look like giant medieval massage rollers. 

But when attached to a state snowplow, the whirling spikes combine with the unit’s forward speed to crush and loosen compact ice and snow, breaking it down into loose pieces. The debris is then swept to the side by the plow’s blade.

Even when they don’t completely remove the ice, the $37,000 devices poke holes deep enough to allow salt to better penetrate and melt the ice. 

The Minnesota DOT learned how to modify ice-breakers to mount on snowplows from their counterparts in Alaska, who also warned that the devices should only be used on ice or compacted snow that is at least 1 in. thick.

Otherwise the device that keeps the roads clear all winter could also keep them under construction all summer.

Hard rock superstar

A new rock star in Nebraska known as “Rocko” is quickly building a fan base after scoring a series of hits.

You won’t find those hits on the radio, though, because Rocko is actually a large boulder located in the median of an Omaha parking lot. 

Rocko is positioned near the entrance to a shopping plaza to make the curb more visible to drivers. 

Unfortunately, Rocko doesn’t seem to be doing his job very well. Drivers turning right into the parking lot are still driving over the curb, and often right up Rocko’s slanted surface, where they wind up stuck with at least one tire in the air. 

This fall, Arrow Towing told CNN that they were being called at least once a week to retrieve vehicles that were marooned on top of Rocko. 

Photos of these vehicles mounted on Rocko, usually with the driver standing nearby looking perplexed, quickly went viral. Soon fans began posting selfies of themselves with Rocko, often featuring either themselves or the boulder in a costume. 

With a 20,000-member Facebook group, its own Reddit community, and even a 5-star rating on Google Maps, Rocko is quickly becoming the most famous rock star from Omaha since, well, ever. 

About the Author

Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news since 2000. The stories are all true.

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