What’s the difference between a semi-truck and a Madison Metro bus? My grandpa never drove a bus. But then again, my grandpa never made more than $100,000 a year either.

Last week, it was revealed that Madison’s highest paid employee was none other than John E. Nelson — the bus driver. Nelson made nearly $160,000 in 2009, with close to $110,000 of that figure coming from overtime pay.

And he isn’t even the only bus driver to join the six-figure club either. Thanks to a combination of the citywide hiring freeze and the surprisingly high rate of workers taking advantage of the federally-mandated Family Medical Leave Act — whose rules allowing those with seniority first shot at overtime — workers like Nelson broke six figures and Madison Metro exceeded its overtime budget by $467,000.

To be fair, Mayor Dave rescinded the hiring freeze for Madison Metro when it became apparent it was necessary. Other problems, however, are more deeply rooted in the city’s contract with the teamsters’ union. Conveniently, that contract — which has allowed dedicated drivers to scamper up the earnings ladder — has ended, and the city is currently negotiating a new one. And, since the city can’t really comment on the process, I will venture a few humble suggestions.

First and foremost, the city must gain the power to cap the hours a driver can work. There are already scheduling restrictions on the city, but drivers can waive those if they so choose. It is only fair that the city be able to restrict the number of hours drivers work as well. According to Channel 3000, Nelson eclipsed 80 hours a week — that’s over 11 hours a day (16 if you take the weekends off). I have roommates who are barely even awake that long.

You can credit such Gehrig-like stats to a nagging wife, chronic insomnia or just a good old-fashioned Protestant work ethic, but you cannot defend such a precedent as safe. Regardless of Metro’s current track record (which seems fine), no one wants bus drivers working such long hours.

A pretty simple option is to apply federal interstate passenger guidelines to the bus drivers of our fair city. Briefly, the regulations would limit drivers to 60 hours per week. Although that’s nearly a day away from 80, it’s still 150 percent of a normal workweek.

These numbers are based on “exhaustive scientific review” — they are not arbitrary. To allow drivers to so drastically exceed accepted regulations is foolish. This is not a question of workers’ rights or union power, but of public safety. Since the union protects workers from overly rigorous schedules, it only makes sense to protect the public from the same.

Furthermore, the number of metro workers requesting time off under the FMLA needs to be addressed. These 16 percent of city workers accounted for 44 percent of all FMLA requests. Now I know family situations vary, but there is no reason a single department should account for nearly half of all FMLA requests.

In part, this time off necessitated the $467,000 overrun in the overtime budget. If for whatever reason this can’t be brought under control, the city should be allowed to exceed the limits on part-time workers from the previous contract. That way, the city would be able to more effectively handle its overtime needs while accommodating the department’s abnormally high FMLA numbers.

Although it may be tempting to slash open Nelson’s mattress or look for heads to roll at city hall, the saga of the $160,000 bus driver is more about the myriad of problems and policies that made it possible. Like anyone, Nelson did the work and is entitled to his pay. The problem isn’t the amount he made, it’s that he made it while working on a seemingly unimaginable schedule.

But just because there is no one person to blame doesn’t mean the problem should not — and cannot — be fixed. Now, during the negotiations for the new contract, is the perfect time to put guidelines such as hours limits in place. This will help ensure that if this happens again, it does so without someone working the equivalent of two full-time jobs in a position where his or her alertness could mean the difference among life, death and a really bad traffic jam.

This city should have no problem with a rich bus driver, but it should have a problem with a tired one.

Joe Labuz ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in biomedical engineering.