Muni Mirrors: Drivers Ignore High-Tech Replacements

Rick Laubscher is the kind of guy who would ride Muni historic streetcars for fun all day and then dream about doing it again all night. The president of Market Street Railway knows every last nut and bolt of the city's historic fleet — which is why he was floored when he recently realized that Muni streetcars have no driver's side mirrors. In fact, they never have.

Muni drivers are used to sharing the road with jackasses, but the older historic streetcars hail from an era when a jackass on the road meant something entirely different. In the old days, when the roads were narrower, the left-hand mirrors on two trolleys approaching one another might collide.

They still might, claim Muni officials — a rather incredible notion. Mirrors are mounted to the front of a historic tram, not its sides; they are flush with the sides of the vehicle and don't extend its width. On the Milan-style cars they only add a foot or so to the train's length, and on the newer "PCC" models, they only extend about half that far. But that's still apparently too far: "The reason there are no mirrors on the driver's side is that they'll hit something — a post or a pole or another train," says Muni engineer Lou Maffei. "They can't be mounted there." As a result, trolley drivers do what generations did before: They stick their heads out the window to keep an eye on traffic.

There is, however, a high-tech and costly solution to a problem that apparently can't be solved with a low-tech and cheap mirror. Muni has revamped about a dozen streetcars with tiny side-mounted cameras that send an image to a small monitor within the vehicle. Maffei confirms that this is neither inexpensive nor simple. The walls of the train must be stripped and wires must be strung between the camera, the power supply, and the screen — "it's quite a bit of work."

And what are trolley operators SF Weekly rode along with doing with the new rearview screens? Ignoring them.

"I've gotten so accustomed to not having one, I really don't pay it much attention," said one driver. Another veteran driver and trainer said he instructs new operators to avoid looking at the monitor when the tram is in motion; he says the image on the LCD screen jiggles and is "a distraction.... It's not really worth any money when you're moving."

Having a new, expensive camera and monitor is "handy" when you're stopped. "But it's not replacing a mirror. And you've always got to look out the window when you're rolling."

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