Death, Maiming, Money, and Muni

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

Many transit experts interviewed for this story insisted it is unrealistic and dangerous to negotiate safety rules as part of a labor contract. But what might be unrealistic and dangerous elsewhere is standard operating practice in San Francisco, where the politically powerful Transit Workers Union Local 250A is a major force in city elections, and driver hiring, disciplinary, and safety policies have been part of the Muni collective bargaining agreement for as long, it seems, as anyone can remember.

At 4:40 p.m. on April 16, 1998, Wilhelmina Antoinette McGriger drove the 38 Geary bus toward Ocean Beach. McGriger had racked up 12 accidents in a little over four years as a Muni driver. Four of these accidents were on the record as her fault, or "avoidable."

As she cruised down Geary Boulevard, McGriger stopped to let a passenger off at 33rd Avenue. She then turned right onto 33rd, heard a thump, then a scream. She got out of the bus and saw a woman lying under the coach. She called Muni dispatch and reported, "A female pedestrian made contact with the bus, causing injuries to herself."

A few hours later, a senior investigator from the City Attorney's Office interviewed McGriger. She denied having a record of accidents and said she did not know that the victim, Janice Racek, was in the crosswalk when she drove through it.

Racek, 47, had just been to the movies. She suffered from muscular dystrophy, kidney disease, diabetes, and hypertension, and, to cap it all, had survived a heart transplant. She lived with her husband, Wayne, an automobile mechanic, in a small apartment in the Richmond District.

According to city investigators, Racek started across the street in front of the bus, walking with the green light and inside the crosswalk. McGriger's bus hit her on her left side, crushing her feet as she fell. Two men who had been traveling on the bus tried to comfort Racek. She was "curled up like a fetus," said Mark Sutton, one of the witnesses. She was moaning, "I don't want to die, I don't want to die," he said.

"Me and Howard [the other witness] are the only two that ran out there," Sutton told an investigator charged with assessing potential liability to the city. "Howard's been in Vietnam, and all I could do was console him. It was all I could do not to look at, it was as, it, it was hamburger."

Racek's almost-severed feet were amputated by doctors at General Hospital. She lost personal independence and was repeatedly rehospitalized over the next few months. Six months after the accident, she was institutionalized for psychiatric care because she had become unable to cope with the dimension of her tragedy, according to court records.

Racek's attorney, Walter Walker, had the accident re-enacted a few weeks after it occurred. Experts for the plaintiff determined that McGriger must have looked left, while turning right. The only reasonable alternative to that theory, says Walker, is that she deliberately ran over Racek. McGriger did not respond to repeated telephone calls seeking comment.

In defending the city and McGriger, the City Attorney's Office posited that Racek's previous ailments had so impaired her judgment that she mistakenly walked into the bus. When that argument collapsed in the face of the re-enactment, the city settled Racek's claim for $3.3 million, which, Walker says, is enough to finance her new life as a perpetual invalid.

McGriger still works for Muni. The agency declines to say in what capacity.

When it comes to safety, Muni's statisticians have been telling it like it is for decades. In report after report to their bosses, they have cataloged the agency's severe and costly safety problems. But it's not as if the statisticians have been nagging nabobs of negativism.

Last year, for instance, statistician Peter Der wrote a simple computer program to red-flag accident-prone drivers and drivers who were racking up overtime in excess of government safety standards. The idea was to improve safety by holding drivers and their supervisors accountable. Der says that Muni director Michael Burns declined to use the program. Burns says he does not remember Der's proposal.

Rather than reduce driver overtime, hire more qualified drivers, or discipline drivers more effectively, Muni has chosen a simpler method of reducing its accident rate. A few years ago, over Hundenski's objections, Muni officials decided that some types of "incidents" on Muni vehicles would simply no longer be defined as accidents.

And on July 1, ostensibly because of budget cutbacks, Muni laid off Hundenski, Der, and a third statistician. Due to the obliteration of the agency's statistical unit, Hundenski said as he cleaned out his desk, there is no longer any way for Muni to keep track of accidents, much less analyze causes and suggest fixes. "There has been a concerted effort to treat a number of incidents as non-accidents," Hundenski remarked. "In fact, I believe that this is much of what is behind getting rid of me."

In the four years ending at the close of December 2002, Muni paid $42.2 million in compensation to more than 4,000 accident victims. Pedestrians received $15.2 million of the total. Transit expert Einstein says that across the country, cities are "spending more money on defending transit agencies, trying to annihilate the plaintiffs, than they are spending trying to prevent accidents."

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