Was it bus-driver error or a blind spot behind the huge side-view bus mirror that killed two pedestrians, months apart, in eerily similar SEPTA accidents last year?
The transit agency blames the operators for the fatal accidents, in which pedestrians were struck by the driver’s side of the 40-foot New Flyer Low Floor buses as they turned left through major intersections in daylight.
But Transport Workers Union Local 234 blames the operators’ extra-large side-view mirrors — the target of driver complaints to SEPTA management for months before the fatal accidents because they create a blind spot that hides pedestrians during a left turn.
The union argues that because drivers can’t see a pedestrian who has “disappeared” behind the largest side-view mirror in SEPTA’s fleet, the transit agency should take responsibility for the accidents instead of scapegoating operators.
A picture by Alejandro Alvarez in the Daily News on Monday (posted along with this article) appears to prove the union's point...
On the morning of May 15, 2004, one of SEPTA’s 518 New Flyer Low Floor buses, which have been in service here since 2001, was turning left off 9th Street when it struck and killed a pedestrian in the middle of Erie Avenue.
“As I was turning onto Erie Avenue off of 9th Street, I saw a man at my left driver’s side mirror,” the bus driver told SEPTA. “I hit the brakes, screamed and called for help via control center.”
The victim, Pedro DeJesus, 62, of Kensington, who was not in the crosswalk, was hit by the driver’s side of the bus and died of head wounds at Temple University Hospital.
Seven months later, on the morning of Dec. 6, 2004, another New Flyer Low Floor bus struck and killed a pedestrian in a crosswalk as it turned left onto Washington Lane from Ogontz Avenue.
The victim, Ernestine Clemmons, 67, of West Oak Lane, was also hit by the driver’s side of the bus.
SEPTA safety inspectors restaged the second fatal accident “in response to complaints received that the New Flyer Low Floor Bus has blind spots that may create a hazard to pedestrians and other motorist\[s\]” according to a SEPTA memo.
Um, any particular reason why they didn't do so after the first incident?
After re-enacting the accident, SEPTA inspectors reported that “if a pedestrian is exactly aligned with the left side front windshield support structure divide, there may be a moment where visual obstruction is experienced.”
But the transit agency’s report concluded that “the allegation of an engineering flaw creating a visual obstruction for bus operators operating the New Flyer Bus is unfounded.”
“The safety investigation concluded that the cause of the accident was operator error,” said James B. Jordan, SEPTA’s assistant general manager for public and operational safety.
“I did not see how anything other than operator carelessness could have caused these deaths,” he said.
Somehow, it's doubtful Jordan was present for the actual re-enactment, so how could he see anything in the first place?
SEPTA has one of the largest fleets of New Flyer buses in America. It’s unclear whether other transit authorities have had problems.
Jordan said SEPTA checked with other transit agencies, “looking for accidents under similar circumstances with the same type of bus. We found none.”
The driver in the West Oak Lane accident is out on leave for an unrelated injury and has not had a hearing. SEPTA fired the bus operator in the Erie Avenue accident for what it called “reckless and inexcusable” driving.
“We make safety suggestions, SEPTA doesn't act on them and then there’s an accident and SEPTA says it’s all our fault,” said a visibly angry Jeff Brooks, president of TWU Local 234, hoping to win upcoming arbitration, and get the fired bus driver rehired and placed in a nondriving job.
“They didn’t take her good driving record since 1994 into consideration,” Brooks said. “They didn’t consider the fact that bus operators had complained for more than a year about that mirror creating a blind spot, and SEPTA didn’t do anything about it. They just made her the fall guy.”
So, in addition to being president of TWU 234, Mr. Brooks apparently has the ability to magically change an operator's gender? (Sorry, but one has to admit that was a rather odd phrasing that last sentence...)
SEPTA Assistant GM Jordan says he did not know that drivers had complained before the fatalities about the blind spot created by the mirror.
But the TWU gave the Daily News documents showing that SEPTA’s mid-level safety managers knew.
On March 5, 2003, Tony Bednarz, a union official at the Comly depot, sent a safety hazard report to SEPTA manager R. Martinez stating that “many operators are complaining about a sizable blind spot in all New Flyer buses.
“The size of the driver side mirror combined with the current location of the AMDT \[electronic messaging\] screen greatly obstructs \[the\] view of the left side of the bus. This obstruction increases the risk of accident.”
On Oct. 22, 2003, Comly depot’s joint union/management safety committee minutes note: “The issue concerning outside mirrors on New Flyers has been sent to Jim Fox/Director of System Safety.”
Midvale depot’s safety committee has a paper trail stretching from September 2003 (“Mirrors on buses are blocking view of the drivers”) to September 2004 — after the first fatal accident but three months before the second one — when the union/management joint safety committee was notified: “New Flyers — driver side mirror blocks driver’s line of sight.”
How Jordan - or for that matter, Fearless Leader and/or any of the Rotating Resumes at 1234 Market responsible for risk management - couldn't have been made aware of this fact is completely mind boggling... until you consider the way that SEPTA Transit Police have practically become a joke in recent years thanks in large part to what many consider to be incompetent management (read: Jordan)...
Asked why SEPTA doesn’t replace the big mirrors with smaller ones, SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said, “When ordering new buses, we do not specify any design features for rear-view mirrors. We accept mirrors provided and designed by the manufacturer, which meet federal safety standards.”
Add this line to the latest series of canned replies from our beloved Minister of Mis-Information...
At the fired bus driver’s state unemployment-compensation hearing in March, the referee noted that there had been “numerous complaints from drivers regarding the side-view mirror on the type of vehicle that the claimant was driving,” that she “checked her mirrors and proceeded slowly, but struck a pedestrian from the left front side of the vehicle” and that she “did not drive recklessly.”
In awarding the bus driver unemployment benefits, the referee wrote that she “credibly testified that there appears to be a blind spot in the mirror on the vehicle which she was driving, and that the employer was aware of complaints regarding this mirror.”
The referee concluded that “the employer has failed to prove that the claimant willfully or deliberately caused the accident, or that the claimant was reckless in her driving.”
Take away the rhetoric from both SEPTA and TWU, and it certainly sounds an impartial evaluation of the facts to me...
After reviewing SEPTA's “line of vision checks” on the controversial mirror, the Daily News ran its own tests at a depot.
[Geringer] and [Alvarez] took turns sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked bus while union officials acted as pedestrians crossing in front of the bus from right to left.
Both reporter and photographer saw pedestrians on the driver’s side “disappear” behind the mirror, which is installed very close to the thick driver’s window frame, creating even more of a visual obstruction.
For the record, it appears that the pictures were actually taken at Ogontz Loop, though I sure someone will correct me if I'm mistaken. That said, in tribute to Yogi Berra's 80th birthday (celebrated last week), it's living proof that "You can learn a lot by just observing."
“I’ve driven all kinds of SEPTA buses,” said union vice president Allison Cooper, who is representing the fired bus driver in upcoming arbitration. “The New Flyer blind spot is not like anything else on any other SEPTA bus.
“SEPTA says the driver was trained to deal with that blind spot. Not true. I took the training. They only teach you to deal with blind spots on the right side, where people board the bus,” Cooper said.
“There’s no training to deal with that huge blind spot caused by that left side mirror. I’m almost six feet tall, and I had to raise up out of my seat to see over it during a left turn. That’s not what we are trained to do.”
Which, sadly and tragically, seems to be SEPTA's SOP as it pertains to training, at least in some cases...
Willie Brown, Local 234’s executive vice president, said, “All those complaints about that driver’s-side mirror before the fatal accidents came from near-misses that scare a bus operator to death.”
“SEPTA ignored those complaints,” Brown said. “Then there’s two fatal accidents, and SEPTA blames the driver, not the mirror that drivers have been complaining about for months.”
“That,” Cooper said, “is crap.”
That, is an accurate assessment.
With all of that out of the way, it certainly seems odd that this story would come out not too long after SEPTA filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the union, accusing TWU leadership of not negotiating in good faith.
Meanwhile, it may not be such a bad idea for SEPTA to get a refresher on one of the most embarassing legal fiascos (and there've been a lot of those in the past several years) since I've lived in the area...
Escalators ... Cecil B. Moore station ... Sharif Hall ... SEPTA's mis-handling of the case ... lawsuit ... heads rolling (but not the right ones)...
Ring any bells, Jordan?