Mayor Lee’s Demand to Make Tour Buses Safer Probably Won’t Work

The double-decker bus that lost control on Post Street a week and a half ago and injured 20 people may not be the most pressing public safety issue in the city (Vision Zero and lingering unease about PG&E gas lines come to mind), but it is the hardest to ignore.

The image of a blue juggernaut hurtling pell-mell past San Francisco landmarks while scattering orange safety barriers like dandelions in its wake would be comical if so many people hadn’t been hurt — and it’s an image not likely to slip the minds of anyone who takes a jaunt up that particular block anytime soon.

Maybe that’s what urged Mayor Ed Lee to get on the horn last week and demand sweeping inspections of the city’s entire carrier bus entourage.

[jump] Under California law, the state (in this case, the Golden Gate Division of the California Highway Patrol) inspects one-third of all such vehicles annually. The mayor says that’s not good enough. He’s calling for a more stringent three-thirds inspection standard. At first blush, that sounds like a great idea. Leave zero room for error and everybody’s happy, right?

But then you wonder, why aren’t we doing that already? What kind of standard is one third? Sure, it’s California law, but why did Sacramento agree to such a tepid safeguard in the first place? Have you seen the size of those buses?

Here’s the catch: Our one-out-of-three annual inspection rate is actually one of the most demanding on the West Coast.

Over in Nevada, where similar coaches ferry gamblers through the desert on a daily basis, the Nevada Transportation Authority does annual random inspections of one-third of all buses, just as we do. But up in Oregon, they never do random inspections, opting to check out a bus only if the operator has had a recent accident or complaint, and even then only those buses that happen to drive down particular highways on particular days when posted signs direct them to stop at truck weighing stations.

(Or, sometimes, OHP just pulls over Oregon buses. “Most of our inspections are roadside pullovers, believe it or not,” says Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Dave McKane. Picture an SFPD bike cop pulling a double-decker bus to the curb on Post Street with traffic ticket in hand.)

Washington state does inspections only every 2-3 years — federal law requires it every three years, but “we try to manage a two years schedule,” says a spokeswoman — and the number of buses inspected depends on the size of the operator’s fleet: 25 percent for smaller outfits, 20 percent for the next largest step up, etc. This is the formula mandated by federal regulations, which California already outperforms.

Why so few?

Well, a quarter or a third is not very many buses relative to how many buses there are, that’s true. But it ends up being an objectively large number of inspections anyway, because there are hundreds of thousands of these vehicles on the road. It’s a lot of hours to put in.

It’s only natural that California, with our huge population and transit infrastructure, would demand more oversight than comparatively sleepy Oregon. But that’s why we have a higher standard as it is.

Now, more inspections are probably still a good idea. But 100 percent, Mr. Mayor?

Asked whether this was a plausible goal even for them, reps from the neighboring state transit offices responded with silence, scoffing, and a “yeah, good luck with that” from our friends in Washington. It would be nice if it happened, but who’s going to punch the clock for it? You may remember CHP has other responsibilities.

The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but it seems likely that Lee knows this is kind of a silly thing to ask for. Politically, it makes sense: He’s been accused of being dismissive about city problems before, like his offhand remark that the homeless need to just turn invisible (or whatever) during the Super Bowl. With images of bus carnage still fresh in everyone’s mind, he wants to sound like he’s playing hardball.

But it’s not necessarily good for the public. There probably are lessons in this near-catastrophe that could make the city safer. We’d be better off if someone made a realistic demand for reform.

State Senator Jerry Hill of San Mateo, for example, suggests raising the inspection fee (presently only $15, same as it’s been for almost 30 years) so that it actually covers the cost of more inspections. He also suggests adding an Oregon-like system of extra inspections for bad actors. “That way just makes more sense,” Hill said by phone.

But big, round numbers just sound better.

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