Death, Maiming, Money, and Muni

The enormous costs -- human and financial -- of bad drivers and lax discipline at the San Francisco Municipal Railway

Muni's lamentable safety record should be well known to the agency's management, its policy-making board, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which approves Muni's budget. Time and again, government audits and scholarly studies have severely criticized the agency's safety practices and repeatedly recommended reforms.

Even so, Muni's hiring practices remain inferior to those used by similar transit systems, and its disciplinary rules continue to be remarkably lax. Muni drivers, for example, can be at fault in as many as three accidents in a year without fear of significant disciplinary action. And, when a year has passed, the record of an accident is erased from the driver's file, leaving the driver free to crash, and crash, and crash again, without danger of being fired.

When contacted for this article, members of the board that sets Muni policy, the Municipal Transportation Authority, seemed to be unaware of, or not particularly concerned by, the agency's poor safety record. MTA board member Mike Casey said he did not know about the high accident rate. When asked how transit accidents might be reduced, board member Shirley Breyer Black said, "Pedestrians should look where they are going." And MTA board Chairman H. Welton Flynn, who has been sitting on Muni governing boards since 1970, said, "We are doing something about the problem, but I can't say what."

Muni buses are riddled with blind spots 
where pedestrians become invisible to 
Paolo Vescia
Muni buses are riddled with blind spots where pedestrians become invisible to drivers.
Karen Balacek wants the city to 
acknowledge that Muni has a safety 
Paolo Vescia
Karen Balacek wants the city to acknowledge that Muni has a safety problem.

When asked about the documented safety problems at his agency, Muni Executive Director Michael Burns acknowledged that the long-standing practice of including driver safety and discipline standards in union contract negotiations works against improving the Municipal Railway's safety record. Still, he said he is proud of Muni's safety record in the last four years, noting that the number of accidents per mile had been reduced since his 1999 hiring.

Indeed, since Burns joined Muni, the agency has instituted innovative policies aimed at lowering Muni's extraordinary accident rate. A few years ago, Burns' administration decided that some falls on transit vehicles -- often caused by drivers stopping or starting a bus or streetcar too abruptly -- would no longer be defined as accidents, automatically creating a reduction, on paper, in the accident rate. And, ostensibly because of budget constraints, the agency recently fired the three statisticians who had been compiling the records that document Muni's immense safety problem.

Burns says Muni is in the process of installing a new computer system to replace the statisticians. "We do not need the statisticians anymore," he explains. "There is no more work for them."

Ned Einstein, a national transit safety expert based in New York City, has a less charitable judgment on the statisticians. "Unlike most other transit agencies, [Muni] drivers seem to have the impunity to get into lots of accidents," he says. "Muni had a small cadre of professionals analyzing these. So Muni's approach to the [high] accident rates was apparently to eliminate the accident analysis team."

Early on a Saturday morning in November 1998, Muni driver Levert J. Horner revved up his 5 Fulton electric-powered trolley bus; on his first run, at around 5 a.m., one of his trolley poles popped off the electric wires over Market Street, between Third and Fourth streets. This kind of disconnection -- known, in transit-speak, as dewirement -- occurs when a "shoe" at the end of the pole that delivers electricity from overhead wires to the electric motor of a trolley loses contact with the wire. Dewirements occur often in San Francisco, Muni's own management has acknowledged, because the design of the carbon inset inside the shoe is incompatible with the design of the hundreds of miles of overhead wires on which it rides. The two pieces of equipment -- wire and shoe -- just do not fit properly.

At 1 p.m. that Saturday, Horner's pole dewired again, at almost the same spot on Market Street. The driver allowed his bus to coast about 150 feet before stopping. Along the way, the end of the dewired pole, now hanging low off the side of the bus, smashed the head of Andy Gescheidt, the 40-year-old owner of Popular Mechanix, a small Volvo repair shop in the Mission District, who was walking to a movie theater. The pole fractured his skull and pushed bone fragments into his brain, causing brain tissue to leak out. Gescheidt nearly died.

At the time, Gescheidt and his lawyer wife, Karen Balacek, owned a house in Noe Valley and were very much the San Francisco middle-class couple, comfortably affluent, urbane, politically liberal, outdoorsy. In his leisure time, Gescheidt enjoyed writing computer programs and riding his motorcycle. When he came home from the hospital months later, his short-term memory and vision were impaired, he bumped into objects while walking, he could not perform simple arithmetic calculations. The quality of his life and the life of his wife was irrevocably changed.

"The last thing I remember before the accident," says Gescheidt in an interview with SF Weekly, "is going for a hike with Karen at Point Reyes. Even today, I have to look at your business card to remember your name." He grins sweetly. "I like to think I present a normal façade to people like yourself, though. Three years ago, a person had to walk around with me to keep me from walking into mailboxes."

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