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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

Page 5 of 7

"I just say a little prayer that she's okay," he said.

Shortly after Beattie testified, the City Attorney's Office agreed to settle the case for $4 million, a Muni record to this day.

In September 1997, the National Transportation Safety Board severely criticized Muni's driver safety practices and called for a reform of Muni's entire management, maintenance, and operations structure. In 1999, auditors from the California Public Utilities Commission found that Muni did not have adequate safety procedures, and that the safety rules it did have were not being followed. The auditors found that a significant cross-section of train operators generally did not understand the meaning of the flashing lights that regulate train speed. The auditors also reported that Muni's accident rate exceeded the rate for all other transit agencies under its jurisdiction, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego.

Proposition E, passed by voters in November 1999, restructured the governing board of Muni and called for safety improvements. Mayor Willie Brown increased the agency's budget by $100 million. But the core safety problems remain unresolved. Those problems relate to the quality of Muni drivers hired, the overworking of drivers, and an absurdly lax disciplinary process for drivers involved in accidents.

R.J. Hundenski, the longtime Muni statistician recently laid off from his job, blames about half of Muni-related pedestrian accidents on erratic behavior by jaywalkers and drunks. There are some problems with aging vehicles, incompatible pieces of equipment, inadequate maintenance, and chronically malfunctioning doors on streetcars. Also, the fairly new transit "islands," which require passengers to cross traffic to board buses, are infamous among transit experts nationwide as examples of unsafe engineering.

But one of the main causes of Muni's high accident rate, Hundenski says, is the agency's hiring process, which regularly allows inexperienced, unskilled, and untrainable drivers to join the payroll.

To apply to be a Muni driver, you must be 21 years of age; have no more than two moving violations, and no convictions for major traffic violations, on your driving record; have no convictions for drug or sexual felonies during the last seven years; and have one year of "public contact or customer service experience." Applicants are required to pass a written test and a drug test.

Unlike the transit agencies for Atlanta, Seattle, New York City, and Chicago, Muni does not require driver applicants to have commercial driving licenses. And unlike public transport systems in many major cities -- including Seattle, Atlanta, New York City, and Sacramento -- Muni does not require that job applicants have two or more years of professional driving experience.

Hundenski, who has been involved in driver selection for 20 years, is very critical of the hiring process. "There needs to be better assessment of abilities," he says. "Applicants need to be tested behind the wheel, at least mimicking driving a bus. ... There should be a whole battery of tests and physical observation, not just a written exam."

Einstein, the New York-based transit expert, has testified in more than 100 court cases as a forensic witness, for plaintiffs as well as for defendants. He says he has read hundreds of depositions by bus drivers. As a consequence of a national driver shortage, he says, some agencies may be settling for less qualified people. "It's important to remember," he says, "that a bus is complex to drive. It can be as difficult as piloting an airplane.

"Lots of drivers are idiots."

Burns, the Muni director, says that he would like to improve his agency's hiring standards, but that it is hard to do so because "there are not enough people out there for us to fill the positions."

Once drivers are hired, Muni puts unnecessary pressure on all of them, good and bad, qualified and not. And the agency's disciplinary process is so benign as to be essentially useless in terms of rooting out bad operators.

Dr. June Fisher, associate clinician at UCSF and an internationally renowned expert on the health of transit workers, has been studying Muni drivers since 1978. By its nature, Fisher says, bus driving is one of the most stressful occupations in the world, and one that's full of conflicting demands. In San Francisco, for example, drivers are torn by pressure from above to meet tight schedules, while driving in a hilly, pedestrian-filled environment in vehicles afflicted with blind spots. (Although Muni vehicles are usually behind schedule -- only 46 percent of the fleet was on time in 2001 -- management closely monitors the timing of the stops, and drivers can be reprimanded for arriving at a scheduled stop late, or, for that matter, early.)

Due to an unusually high rate of driver attrition -- about a third higher than comparable transit systems -- Muni has to replace 10 percent of its 2,235 drivers every year. In addition, 14 percent of the scheduled operators are absent from work on any given day, according to Muni documents. The high rates of turnover and absenteeism mean that there is a permanent shortage of available drivers, a constant need for new hires, and a continuing call for drivers to work overtime, says Hundenski.

And when it comes to transit, overtime is dangerous. Federal transit safety law requires that transit operators "may not remain on duty for more than 12 consecutive hours or more than 12 hours spread over a period of 16 hours." A 1999 state audit reported that every Muni operator examined in a spot check was in violation of this law. "The records indicated that these employees were on duty anywhere from 13 to 15 hours per working day with the exception of one operator who was on duty for 19 hours," the audit said.

Transit planner Einstein says there is a common thread in the hundreds of bus accidents he has studied: In the vast majority of cases, fatigued drivers are rushing to catch up with tight schedules.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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