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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 7 of 7

In defending the city and McGriger, the City Attorney's Office posited that Racek's previous ailments had so impaired her judgment that she mistakenly walked into the bus. When that argument collapsed in the face of the re-enactment, the city settled Racek's claim for $3.3 million, which, Walker says, is enough to finance her new life as a perpetual invalid.

McGriger still works for Muni. The agency declines to say in what capacity.

When it comes to safety, Muni's statisticians have been telling it like it is for decades. In report after report to their bosses, they have cataloged the agency's severe and costly safety problems. But it's not as if the statisticians have been nagging nabobs of negativism.

Last year, for instance, statistician Peter Der wrote a simple computer program to red-flag accident-prone drivers and drivers who were racking up overtime in excess of government safety standards. The idea was to improve safety by holding drivers and their supervisors accountable. Der says that Muni director Michael Burns declined to use the program. Burns says he does not remember Der's proposal.

Rather than reduce driver overtime, hire more qualified drivers, or discipline drivers more effectively, Muni has chosen a simpler method of reducing its accident rate. A few years ago, over Hundenski's objections, Muni officials decided that some types of "incidents" on Muni vehicles would simply no longer be defined as accidents.

And on July 1, ostensibly because of budget cutbacks, Muni laid off Hundenski, Der, and a third statistician. Due to the obliteration of the agency's statistical unit, Hundenski said as he cleaned out his desk, there is no longer any way for Muni to keep track of accidents, much less analyze causes and suggest fixes. "There has been a concerted effort to treat a number of incidents as non-accidents," Hundenski remarked. "In fact, I believe that this is much of what is behind getting rid of me."

In the four years ending at the close of December 2002, Muni paid $42.2 million in compensation to more than 4,000 accident victims. Pedestrians received $15.2 million of the total. Transit expert Einstein says that across the country, cities are "spending more money on defending transit agencies, trying to annihilate the plaintiffs, than they are spending trying to prevent accidents."

Muni's continuing refusal to face and deal with a safety problem that kills citizens and costs taxpayers millions seems to be based, like many a chronic San Francisco problem, in bureaucratic inertia and union politics. Over the years, Muni has allowed its standards for hiring and disciplining drivers to be set out in its contracts with TWU Local 250A. Because overtime increases drivers' pay, there is little incentive for the politically influential TWU to call for reforms to reduce overtime, and, thereby, the driver fatigue at the root of many transit accidents. In essence, transit safety has been a bargaining chip in contract talks, rather than a focus of concern -- for either union leaders or Muni management.

It's a chip, apparently, that will remain part of the game.

"Whether or not it makes sense to include safety and discipline issues in collective bargaining negotiations is not the issue," Burns says. "Ideally, you would prefer not to. But it's a long-standing tradition in San Francisco to do so.

"It's not going to change. It's the character of the system."

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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