Muni: Bus blunders or plain bad luck?

Following a year in which Muni drew national attention for a two-train collision that injured 47 people at West Portal Station, The City’s transit agency has already been involved in a number of high-profile accidents in 2010, including another mishap Thursday that left five people hurt.

The agency’s most recent accident — in which an J-Church light-rail vehicle struck a stationary F-Market streetcar on San Jose Avenue — was the ninth Muni incident of note this year and the second in a two-day span.

The operator of the J-Church train, a 30-year Muni veteran, was speeding at the time of the collision. Officials with the Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, have said the accident was likely caused by driver error.

This year, the incidents have included a bus collision with a truck in Potrero Hill, in which a Muni operator rolled through a stop sign; a pedestrian accident on Ocean View that left a man trapped briefly underneath a light-rail vehicle; and a bizarre bus incident on Fillmore Street involving a disabled passenger, a blown fire hydrant, and an injured Muni worker.

On Wednesday evening — less than 24 hours before the streetcar-vs.-light-rail collision on Thursday — a Muni bus was involved in an accident with a truck on Park Presidio Boulevard, sending the driver of the vehicle to the hospital.

Despite these incidents, Muni safety reports indicate that accidents in 2009 were down from 2008. From January to November of 2009, Muni reported 2,070 total incidents, an 8 percent drop from the previous year. In 2009, the agency recorded its lowest collision rate per 100,000 vehicle miles traveled in five years.

MTA officials attribute a number of different policy shifts for the drop in accidents, including heightened oversight of operator performance, improved data gathering and analysis of safety trends, revamped training for agency employees and the installation of a new onboard digital video system that is triggered by the sudden application of brakes.

“We are working hard to improve the culture and safety at Muni by implementing transit-industry best practices,” said James Dougherty, the MTA’s chief safety officer. “No accident is acceptable.”

Despite the agency’s achievements, some transit riders and advocates remain skeptical about the agency’s safety standards.

Greg Dewar, a local blogger who comments on Muni operations through his Web site, The N-Judah Chronicles, said he’s noticed a sizeable increase in serious transit accidents recently.

“I know there will always be Muni accidents,” said Dewar. “But what has really struck me lately has been the extent and the frequency of these problems. It seems like every single day, there is a major screw-up on Muni.”

David Challinor, a Portola Valley resident who works in The City, echoed Dewar’s sentiments.

“The only thing I ever hear about Muni are its accidents,” he said. “It doesn’t exactly make me feel safe.”

However, not all Muni passengers are concerned with the agency’s recent string of wrecks. Paul Stout, a San Francisco resident who frequently rides the 38-Geary, said he doesn’t feel unsafe while travelling on Muni. 

Last year, two Muni light-rail vehicles collided at West Portal Station after one of the train operators passed out while guiding the vehicle under manual settings. The train should have been travelling on its automatic settings, per normal Muni protocols.

The National Transportation Safety Board, a federal organization, was called in to investigate the accident. It is expected to release its report on the matter later this year.

This year’s recent spate of well-documented Muni mix-ups come at a time when the agency is proposing to reduce service by as much as 10 percent, which would leave passengers waiting longer to board more-crowded buses.

The cash-strapped agency, which has had more than $230 million stripped from it in the past two years from state and local sources, has also raised the price of its monthly Fast Pass twice since July from $45 to $65.

The cost of high-priced accidents

The officials who oversee Muni will face a tough choice in the coming weeks — renew a costly catastrophic insurance premium at a time when the agency is struggling mightily to balance its budget, or ignore the coverage and risk the potential expense of a devastating accident.

The Municipal Transit Agency, which oversees Muni, carries catastrophic insurance coverage, which was approved for the first time last year. It covers the transit agency in the event of a major incident — one in which the resulting injury claims range from $5 million to $25 million.

The agency frequently pays millions of dollars out of pocket each year, such as a $21 million settlement to the family of 4-year-old Elizabeth Dominguez, who was killed when a maintenance truck driven by a Muni employee struck her in 2003. The agency will dole out that $21 million payment, which was finally settled in 2008, over a period of three years.

While the coverage would provide a security blanket for the transit agency, renewing it would cost $2.4 million this upcoming fiscal year, and the MTA is already facing a $53 million shortfall.

Malcolm Heinicke, an MTA board member who supported paying the catastrophic insurance premium last year, said he would still do so this year, despite the agency’s tough financial outlook.

“Spending any money in these tough economic times is not an easy decision,” said Heinicke. “But I still support this measure, because it’s been proven as a best practice by other transit agencies, and it guards the MTA against any sudden or significant losses.”

Last year, the MTA board approved the catastrophic insurance coverage just weeks before a major Muni collision injured nearly 50 people at West Portal Station. With the City Attorney’s Office still reviewing the injury claims from that incident, its uncertain if that crash will result in more than $5 million in damages.

The MTA board of directors is scheduled to review the insurance coverage at its March 2 meeting. The agency’s staff has yet to make a recommendation on the matter.

An inauspicious start

Muni vehicles have been involved in at least nine high-profile incidents in the first two months of 2010.

When: 12:05 a.m. Jan. 5
Line: 19-Polk
Where: 18th and De Haro streets
What happened: Bus collided with a truck, sending the bus onto its side
Injuries: Nine people were hurt, including both drivers

When: 8:04 a.m. Jan. 28
Line: N-Judah
Where: 19th Avenue and Judah Street
What happened: Light-rail vehicle and a car were involved in a collision
Injuries: Car driver sustained minor injuries, was not hospitalized

When: 2:39 p.m. Jan. 28
Line: N-Judah
Where: Ninth Avenue and Judah Street
What happened: Light-rail vehicle struck woman who had tripped
Injuries: Woman sustained injuries that were not life-threatening

When: 4:30 p.m. Jan. 29
Line: M-Ocean View
Where: Randolph and Ramsell streets
What happened: Man trapped under light-rail vehicle after being struck while crossing street
Injuries: Man hospitalized with serious injuries

When: 6:25 a.m. Feb. 5
Line: M-Ocean View
Where: 19th Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard
What happened: Light-rail vehicle collides with vehicle
Injuries: Vehicle driver injured, taken to hospital

When: 5:45 p.m. Feb. 7
Line: 22-Fillmore
Where: Fillmore and Haight streets
What happened: Wheelchair-bound person falls off lift; bus shears off fire hydrant
Injuries: Person injured, taken to hospital

When: 1:41 p.m. Feb. 9
Line: 9-San Bruno
Where: San Bruno Avenue and Burrows Street
What happened: Bus struck woman who may or may not have been in crosswalk
Injuries: Woman sustained life-threatening injuries

When: 4:30 p.m. Feb. 17
Line: 28-19th Avenue
Where: Park Presidio Boulevard and Lake Street
What happened: Bus and truck involved in a collision
Injuries: A passenger in the truck was hospitalized

When: 6:24 a.m. Feb. 18
Line: F-Market, J-Church
Where: San Jose Avenue
What happened: F-Market and J-Church line collided
Injuries: Three injured, including Muni operator

Safety in numbers

Number of collisons reported by Muni per 100,000 vehicle miles driven:

2005: 6.10
2006: 6.03
2007: 5.97
2008: 6.55
2009: 5.46

Disaster decline

Muni figures indicate an overall reduction in the number of reported accidents from 2008 to 2009.

January-November 2008: 2,253
January-November 2009: 2,070

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