Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.f. ExaminerEven with disabled seats in an upright and locked position

Injury concern prompts Muni to remove over 1,400 seats

Having trouble finding a seat on Muni?

Sitting down on a San Francisco bus has long been a struggle, but over the past year, more than 1,400 seats have been eliminated from The City's coaches.

Following a warning from its bus manufacturer, New Flyer, Muni disabled seats on 717 buses in its fleet, said spokesman Paul Rose of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni. And since there are now two conjoined seats per bus locked upright, 1,434 seats are gone.

The SFMTA began permanently folding and locking forward-facing seats on Muni buses in April. The seats are now permanently locked upright, bearing a sticker saying, “This seat has been disabled for safety reasons, please do not sit here.” Many passengers have taken to leaning on or sitting atop the locked seats, or just standing next to them.

New Flyer prompted the move with a red-flag warning about the seats.

“There have been three hard-braking incidents where passengers were ejected from these forward facing seats and sustained quadriplegic injuries,” New Flyer wrote in a December 2013 bulletin to its clients, which include many transit systems nationwide.

The SFMTA might also fear lawsuits from the forward-facing seats.

CalTIP, an insurance group for transportation agencies across California but not Muni, advised its members of one such lawsuit. In summer 2012, CalTIP wrote to its members that a transit agency experienced an incident in which a passenger was “thrown out of a first row front-facing-flip seat where the operator applied the brakes hard to avoid a collision with another vehicle.”

Although the passenger indicated at the time that he was not injured, he eventually filed a claim. The case closed with “a total cost of approximately four times the average CalTIP loss rate,” the insurer wrote.

But the bulletin also noted the rarity of such incidents, saying that in 21 years over billions of passenger miles, New Flyer is “aware of only these three serious incidents involving its buses.”

The SFMTA, however, did not take any chances.

The seats are locked on “all types of buses,” Rose said. Barring unforeseen changes, they will remain so until the fleet is replaced.

“It remains just as dangerous if these seat are up than if these seats are down,” said Thea Selby, interim chair of passenger advocate the San Francisco Transit Riders. “People perch on [the seats] now, even though they're locked up.”

But with the warning sticker, Selby said, the SFMTA is less liable if there is an accident.

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