Death, Maiming, Money, and Muni

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

In 2002, Muni had 109 accidents per million miles traveled. By comparison, the King County Department of Transportation, which serves the Seattle metropolitan area, had 38 accidents per million miles. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority had 35, Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Area Transit Authority 27, and Atlanta's MARTA just 25. From 1989 to 1999, Muni's accident rate increased by 11 percent (reaching a high of 124 four years ago). Muni's numbers improved after the agency redefined what it considered an accident, but Muni is still booking an accident rate that is more than twice what comparable systems report.

And Muni drivers appear to be getting worse at their job. In 2001, according to the most recent data available from the agency, Muni reported that the number of operators involved in one or more accidents increased by 8 percent over the previous year. And the number of operators with zero accidents was 200 fewer than in the previous year, an 8 percent decrease.

Ned Einstein, president of Transportation Alternatives Inc., a transit safety consulting firm, worked as a planner for many years in Los Angeles, Paris, and Washington, D.C. One of the country's leading experts on transit safety, he says he understands the concerns of the union drivers, the system administrators, and the public, and is familiar with Muni's safety issues. He says that Muni management does not draw appropriate conclusions from its accident data.

"There is a subtle blend of factors from which a high accident rate emerges," he contends. With too much overtime, he says, drivers become fatigued. Because the schedules are too tight, it is hard to enforce safety. Drivers cut corners to save time.

"It's a chain reaction," observes Einstein. "Things add up and make the driver's job tough."

Overall, he says, it just takes a lot of energy, intelligence, stamina, and attention to detail to be a safe transit driver.

On Dec. 15, 1996, Emily Landsverk walked out of her Cole Valley apartment to buy burritos for herself and her boyfriend. A recent UC Berkeley graduate in anthropology, Landsverk, 26, was working as a legal secretary for the American Civil Liberties Union. At the intersection of Haight and Cole, she crossed the street.

Welton N.M. Beattie, a 12-year Muni veteran, was driving the No. 37 bus west on Haight Street. In a deposition, Beattie said that he felt a "bump." Then another. Somethingwas in the way of the bus, he did not know what. He accelerated; bump again. According to a half-dozen witnesses, Beattie rolled the 15-ton bus on top of the obstruction and stopped. Angry, frightened passers-by pounded on the bus door, shouting, "Get off of her! Get off of her!" At that point, according to his deposition, Beattie looked in his side mirror, saw a body under his tire, and pulled forward.

Weeping from the pain of a crushed pelvis, Landsverk feebly tried to raise herself on her forearms. Beattie called the Muni dispatcher. A witness to the accident, Lorri Puente, who was on the sidewalk, testified in a deposition that the driver "was screaming about being disruptive of his schedule. And I kept a couple of people from going at him physically because they said, you know, 'What's wrong with you? You just ran over an individual twice, dragged her. Don't you have any compassion?'

"And he was a very angry individual. He says -- he said, you know, 'This is going -- I'm going to be late for my schedule.'"

As paramedics rushed Landsverk to San Francisco General Hospital, where she fought for her life, Beattie told a police officer, "I was making a left turn. All of a sudden this lady ran in front of the bus." Based on Beattie's statement, the cop wrote into his report that Landsverk had crossed the street outside the crosswalk -- in other words, that she was a jaywalker. The police did not interview eyewitnesses to the initial strike. But Puente testified that a passer-by told her Landsverk had been inside the crosswalk.

Doctors treated Landsverk for three broken ribs; a bruised lung; a punctured diaphragm; a lacerated liver; wounded intestines; a busted spleen; nerve damage in her legs and urethral sphincter muscle; a tear in her vagina, which had been separated from her abdominal wall; a shattered, free-floating pelvis; a degloved (skinned) left arm; deep abrasions on her legs; a large chunk of flesh torn out of her groin; and a broken pinkie finger.

In a deposition given a few months later to Landsverk's attorney, Mary Alexander, Beattie changed the story he told the police, saying he never saw Landsverk until he heard "a human cry." Parsing his words, he seemed to try to disassociate himself from a bus that had acted badly on its own volition.

Beattie: It appeared that the bus had some kind of contact with the pedestrian ....

Alexander: [Did] the bus run over the person?

Beattie: I determined that there was an injured person.

Alexander: When did you decide that your bus had run over this person?

Beattie: I never came to that decision or conclusion.

Alexander: As you sit here today, have you come to the conclusion that your bus ran over the person?

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