Death, Maiming, Money, and Muni

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

Beattie: I came to the conclusion that it was involved in an incident.

Beattie decided that he could not have seen Landsverk run in front of the bus because "[t]hat entire front end is a blind spot." He said that drivers often discussed among themselves how the blind spots made it impossible to see pedestrians. "We [also] informed the training department that there are blind spots all over."

Alexander: You understand that as a bus driver you are supposed to yield to pedestrians?

Beattie: Yes.

Alexander: Pedestrians have the right of way; is that correct?

Beattie: At some times.

Alexander: What times do pedestrians not have the right of way?

Beattie: Jaywalking ....

Alexander: Are you supposed to yield to a pedestrian if they're jaywalking?

Beattie: You can. It depends on the situation ....

Alexander: Your goal is not to hit a pedestrian even if they're jaywalking; is that correct?

Beattie: Correct.

Alexander then read out loud the instructions from the Muni Operators Training Guidebook requiring bus drivers to make sure pedestrians see the bus and to yield to pedestrians, even when they "make foolish moves." The guidebook notes that buses have blind spots on the right and left sides; to avoid creaming pedestrians in the blind spots, operators are to drive very slowly when turning or moving through a crowded area, and to maintain a four-foot "space cushion" of clearance on the curb side.

Landsverk, who has recovered from her injuries and recently graduated from law school, says she is not angry with Beattie. "But," she says with emotion, "he should have seen me. It could have been prevented."

Muni saw the matter differently, listing the Landsverk accident as "unavoidable," meaning that Beattie was not at fault. But the driver could have been an unsympathetic figure in court, Alexander says, not least because of his apparent lack of concern about the results of his actions. In his deposition nearly a year after the accident, Beattie testified that he did not know whether Landsverk was alive or dead.

"I just say a little prayer that she's okay," he said.

Shortly after Beattie testified, the City Attorney's Office agreed to settle the case for $4 million, a Muni record to this day.

In September 1997, the National Transportation Safety Board severely criticized Muni's driver safety practices and called for a reform of Muni's entire management, maintenance, and operations structure. In 1999, auditors from the California Public Utilities Commission found that Muni did not have adequate safety procedures, and that the safety rules it did have were not being followed. The auditors found that a significant cross-section of train operators generally did not understand the meaning of the flashing lights that regulate train speed. The auditors also reported that Muni's accident rate exceeded the rate for all other transit agencies under its jurisdiction, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego.

Proposition E, passed by voters in November 1999, restructured the governing board of Muni and called for safety improvements. Mayor Willie Brown increased the agency's budget by $100 million. But the core safety problems remain unresolved. Those problems relate to the quality of Muni drivers hired, the overworking of drivers, and an absurdly lax disciplinary process for drivers involved in accidents.

R.J. Hundenski, the longtime Muni statistician recently laid off from his job, blames about half of Muni-related pedestrian accidents on erratic behavior by jaywalkers and drunks. There are some problems with aging vehicles, incompatible pieces of equipment, inadequate maintenance, and chronically malfunctioning doors on streetcars. Also, the fairly new transit "islands," which require passengers to cross traffic to board buses, are infamous among transit experts nationwide as examples of unsafe engineering.

But one of the main causes of Muni's high accident rate, Hundenski says, is the agency's hiring process, which regularly allows inexperienced, unskilled, and untrainable drivers to join the payroll.

To apply to be a Muni driver, you must be 21 years of age; have no more than two moving violations, and no convictions for major traffic violations, on your driving record; have no convictions for drug or sexual felonies during the last seven years; and have one year of "public contact or customer service experience." Applicants are required to pass a written test and a drug test.

Unlike the transit agencies for Atlanta, Seattle, New York City, and Chicago, Muni does not require driver applicants to have commercial driving licenses. And unlike public transport systems in many major cities -- including Seattle, Atlanta, New York City, and Sacramento -- Muni does not require that job applicants have two or more years of professional driving experience.

Hundenski, who has been involved in driver selection for 20 years, is very critical of the hiring process. "There needs to be better assessment of abilities," he says. "Applicants need to be tested behind the wheel, at least mimicking driving a bus. ... There should be a whole battery of tests and physical observation, not just a written exam."

Einstein, the New York-based transit expert, has testified in more than 100 court cases as a forensic witness, for plaintiffs as well as for defendants. He says he has read hundreds of depositions by bus drivers. As a consequence of a national driver shortage, he says, some agencies may be settling for less qualified people. "It's important to remember," he says, "that a bus is complex to drive. It can be as difficult as piloting an airplane.

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