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Death, Maiming, Money, and Muni 

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

Wednesday, Aug 6 2003
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Muni reported in 2001 that 70 percent of its drivers chalked up one or more accidents a year; 8 percent of the drivers scored four or more accidents a year; 4 percent had five or more. Yet the agency's system of driver discipline is almost laughably lenient. Drivers are generally allowed to be at fault in three or more major accidents a year before being subject to dismissal, says Muni spokesman Alan Siegel. (Major accidents are defined as causing more than $5,000 in property damage.)

After his first "avoidable" accident, a Muni driver receives some retraining. His second or third avoidable accident results in more retraining, with the possibility of a suspension of up to 30 days. Even racking up three major accidents in a year doesn't necessarily mean termination. A driver who racks up five avoidables in a year has a good chance of being fired, says Siegel, but there is no limit on the number of unavoidable accidents a driver can incur without being disciplined.

Making matters worse, chronically bad drivers can slip through the system of discipline year after year because after 12 months, each accident is expunged from the record (in what is called a "rolling drop"). In other words, a bad driver might be allowed as many as five major, avoidable accidents a year for his entire career.

"A rolling drop of one year is categorically irresponsible," Einstein says. "If you keep expunging the record, you cannot identify drivers that really need to be gone. And you have no rationale with which to dismiss them."

Muni's leniency in this regard is not shared by similarly configured, but safer, transit systems. At the Seattle transit agency, whose union drivers have a much better safety record than Muni's drivers, accidents remain on a driver's record for four years, and a system of "points" is used in deciding driver discipline. The San Diego transit system rolls accidents off the driver records after three years. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority never expunges an accident from the driver's record and can take a driver's entire career into account when necessary, says a spokesman.

The Massachusetts Bay Area Transit Authority rolls an accident off the record every two years. But five avoidable accidents incurred during the two-year period results in an automatic "recommendation for discharge."

And in Seattle, San Diego, Atlanta, and Boston, a driver who tested positive for cocaine while on duty (or off duty) -- as Muni's Sarah Benton did -- would be given a swift boot, not a promotion.

Unlike those agencies, Muni has no rules for the automatic termination of an operator convicted of driving under the influence. Muni allows drivers, on their first DUI conviction, to "reduce the loss of pay and return to driving duties" by attending a class about substance abuse.

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.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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