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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
Late in the afternoon of Oct. 23, 1999, Muni driver Sarah Benton picked up an empty bus at a Municipal Railway yard in southeast San Francisco, drove off, and an hour later exited Highway 280 at Monterey Boulevard, racing at 70 miles an hour toward her first stop. Slowing down in front of the speeding bus was a red Nissan Sentra driven by J.C. Criswell, a retired Hunters Point Shipyard laborer who was on his way to visit his cousin. Benton's bus slammed into the back of Criswell's car so hard that a slightly raised identifying number on the front of the bus was imprinted on the trunk of the Nissan. "It was like an explosion," Criswell recalled in a legal deposition. "My spine went."

When California Highway Patrolman Robert Johansen pulled up to the scene, Benton told him a white truck had crushed the Nissan, and she had swerved to miss the accident. More cops arrived; they measured skid marks, drew diagrams of the accident, and interviewed witnesses. After seeing the bus medallion number stamped on the back of the wrecked Nissan, Johansen reinterviewed Benton.

"She seemed very confused," he wrote in his report. "I noticed the odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from her breath, that her speech was thick and slurred, and that her eyes were bloodshot and watery." The bus operator acknowledged downing a margarita at the Sam Jordan's bar on Third Street, around the corner from the Muni bus yard, before her shift started. After she failed a sobriety field test, Benton was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. At the highway patrol station downtown, she took a Breathalyzer test, which showed her blood alcohol level to be 0.13 percent. That's to say, she was legally drunk. (She was, in fact, later convicted of driving under the influence.)

Immediately after the accident, the Municipal Railway suspended Benton without pay. She was let go a year later. By the dictates of common sense, she should have been fired a long time before she used a Muni bus to paralyze Criswell from the waist down for the rest of his life.

Muni officials had long been aware that Benton was a substance abuser and a terrible driver, says attorney Joseph Nierenberg, who sued Muni for Criswell. Research for a lawsuit Nierenberg filed on behalf of Criswell turned up a damning Muni accident report in court files related to a child custody hearing in San Mateo County. Muni hired Benton as a part-time driver in 1991; in February 1992, the report said, Benton caused "property damage" while operating a streetcar in the Sunset District. The accident inspector at the scene "detected a suspicious odor on the operator's breath," and Benton failed to pass a field sobriety test, "repeatedly touch[ing] her upper lip and nostrils instead of the tip of her nose as called for," the report said.

The inspector escorted Benton to St. Luke's Hospital for a urine test. "When the operator submitted her first urine sample to the staff nurse, the nurse questioned the sample's validity: the nurse said the sample did not emit heat that should have been generated by the body ... [t]herefore the nurse requested another sample, and was present when the operator produced the sample." Benton's urine tested positive for cocaine, and the driver was suspended without pay for 30 days.

In November 1992, one of the fathers of Benton's children declared under penalty of perjury that Benton's brother "advised me that she used our children's urine to pass drug tests." Another man who had fathered a child with Benton swore that, while he knew her, she drank an average of two 8-ounce glasses of vodka every day and once ran her car into a mailbox while driving under the influence. (In a sworn court declaration, Benton denied using drugs or alcohol.)

Despite the streetcar accident and the cocaine test, in August 1993 Muni promoted Benton to full-time status. In court filings, Muni officials have admitted that over the next six years, Benton had at least five more accidents, one of which was her fault. When the City Attorney's Office entered into settlement negotiations with Nierenberg, however, it filed court papers that said, "There is no evidence that Muni knew or should have known that Ms. Benton had a 'known alcohol and substance abuse problem.'"

Nierenberg, who has sued Muni many times, laughs. He says that after he showed a deputy city attorney the Muni accident report and the positive drug test, "Muni paid me to go away." In September 2000, the transit agency settled with Criswell, paying him $3,350,000.

In 2001, Muni buses, streetcars, trolleys, and cable cars were involved in 3,145 accidents -- or more than twice as many crashes per mile traveled as transit vehicles in five comparable U.S. transport systems. San Francisco pedestrians are particularly endangered: The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that from 1998 to 2000, Muni bus drivers killed 10 pedestrians, more than were killed by the bus drivers in all five comparable cities combined. Beyond loss of life, injury, and property damage, Muni's safety problems have had a tremendous economic cost, with the agency paying out $42 million in settlements over the last five years to accident victims.

Muni's lamentable safety record should be well known to the agency's management, its policy-making board, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which approves Muni's budget. Time and again, government audits and scholarly studies have severely criticized the agency's safety practices and repeatedly recommended reforms.

Even so, Muni's hiring practices remain inferior to those used by similar transit systems, and its disciplinary rules continue to be remarkably lax. Muni drivers, for example, can be at fault in as many as three accidents in a year without fear of significant disciplinary action. And, when a year has passed, the record of an accident is erased from the driver's file, leaving the driver free to crash, and crash, and crash again, without danger of being fired.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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