Death, Maiming, Money, and Muni

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

"Most people carry a list of things in your brain that you can do -- like ride a bike. It's like having a file cabinet with your identity stored. It's no fun to dig into the cabinet and find empty files," his wife says. "But Andy's recovery is so much better today than what I would have settled for in those dark days of bargaining with God."

It took three very long years for Gescheidt to reach a settlement agreement with San Francisco City Attorney Louise Renne. While the couple went heavily into debt for medical and living expenses, the City Attorney's Office contested the brain-damaged man's claim with a "design immunity" defense, claiming that, under California law, the city could not be held liable for equipment design flaws like an ill-fitting trolley shoe that causes dewirement.

"I think they just wanted to test the design immunity theory," Balacek says bitterly. "Neither the deputy city attorneys nor Muni cared about what happened to Andy. Nobody sent flowers to the hospital room, not the mayor, not the head of Muni, not the driver. Nobody called us to see how we were, or to simply say, 'We are sorry that this happened.'"

When a Superior Court judge upheld the design immunity argument, Gescheidt and Balacek were devastated. "The city intended to give us zero," Balacek recalls.

On appeal, though, the ruling was overturned. Gescheidt's attorneys subsequently deposed a slew of Muni employees -- administrators, training instructors, mechanics, and drivers -- as well as outside experts to determine exactly what had happened. It soon became evident from depositions taken by Gescheidt's lawyers that Muni drivers and high-ranking administrators knew pedestrians had been severely injured by dewired poles. Three officials testified that Muni was fully aware of the problem with the carbon shoe insert and had taken no steps to fix it. In fact, the city had previously settled similar pole-thumps-head lawsuits -- at least four since 1990. "The risk to pedestrians, I don't think, was given much consideration," Muni's chief statistician, R.J. Hundenski, testified.

"There is a culture of secrecy at Muni," Balacek, still shocked by the callousness of city government, says. "They keep secrets from each other. One division doesn't know what the other is doing. They pretend if you don't talk about it, it didn't happen."

In mid-2001, Muni awarded Gescheidt and Balacek $2.5 million. The settlement was calculated to cover Gescheidt's medical expenses, with a bit thrown in to compensate the couple for the liquidation of their former lifestyle. Gescheidt and Balacek are still searching for emotional closure, though.

"If the city acknowledges that there is a safety problem with Muni, that will be a first step towards closure," Balacek says. "Transit will never be 100 percent safe, but when you find something you can fix, why not fix it?"

Since Gescheidt's accident, the number of Muni dewirements has been rising. In 2001, there were 64 dewirements that resulted in damage or personal injury, a 55 percent increase over the previous year, according to a Muni report.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 10 pedestrians died in Muni bus crashes in 1998, 1999, and 2000. During this time frame, Seattle transit bus drivers were involved in accidents that killed one person. In Atlanta, two pedestrians were killed. The same number died in Boston and Washington, D.C. One pedestrian died in Sacramento, none in San Diego. Muni's kill rate is remarkable in a holistic sense: 33 percent of all pedestrians killed by vehicles in San Francisco during this time were killed by Muni buses, according to the federal data. The ratio in Seattle and Boston was 16 percent; 13 percent in Los Angeles; 10 percent in Atlanta.

The pedestrian-death problem shouldn't be news to the agency's executives or policy-making board. Two years ago, Hundenski, Muni's chief statistician, reported to the Municipal Transportation Authority that anyone who read San Francisco newspapers could see that pedestrian accidents were increasing dramatically; in fact, they had by more than a third over the previous year. "Could those fatalities have been prevented?" the record-keeper asked rhetorically. "Probably. Could they have been easily prevented? Probably not."

To determine the extent of Muni's safety problem and the effectiveness of its response, SF Weekly spent four months obtaining and examining thousands of pages of public records, including internal transit agency reports, audits, and court files relating to lawsuits brought by accident victims; talking to the maimed, and to their attorneys; speaking with survivors of the deceased; interviewing a score of transit experts across the country; and scouring government databases for comparative accident data.

Public transit systems are studies in complexity. None is perfectly comparable to another. State and federal officials acknowledge that some of their transit accident statistics are unreliable, usually in the direction of underreporting. And broad statistics seldom provide a complete explanation for the causes of individual accidents. Keeping those caveats in mind, and even giving Muni managers the benefit of the doubt, the public record makes it clear that Muni accident rates are higher than those in comparable transit agencies.

Although hills, weather, street conditions, traffic flow, and other individual characteristics of different cities make it statistically difficult to compare the safety successes and failures of municipal transit agencies, the statistical benchmark most commonly used for assessing the relative safety of public transit systems, according to a wide variety of transportation experts, is the accident rate, or the number of collisions per million miles traveled. The figures used for the intercity comparisons in this article were obtained from officials at six transit systems selected, after consultation with transit experts, because they are similar to Muni in geography, population density, numbers of passengers served, budget size, fleet size, and modes of transit offered (i.e., motorbus, electric trolley, and light rail). Not all systems provided statistics in all categories.

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