Bus Kill

In the crosswalk, New Yorkers find themselves in the cross hairs

 On September 6 of last year, a speeding bus rolling toward Brooklyn on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge slammed into a tractor trailer, sending 14 riders to the hospital.

The New York City Transit bus driver had been going 33 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone and tailgating. When the truck slowed, there was no way the driver could stop in time, especially in a 42,000-pound behemoth. Investigators later learned that the driver had two prior accidents, one ruled preventable—in three years, and had been disciplined once previously for speeding.

His superiors fired him, but he went to arbitration and won a 20-day suspension. Before long, he was back on the road.

Two days after the Verrazano crash, another NYCT bus driver smashed into not one but two vans in the Bronx, injuring eight more people. That driver had been on probation for her involvement in six prior accidents, two ruled preventable, in three years.

After the Bronx accident, the driver insisted that the brakes had failed. State investigators concluded, however, that she had mistakenly hit the gas pedal when she meant to slow down. The cause, they said, was "the failure of the driver to operate [the vehicle] safely and under control." In the end, transit officials terminated her driving career, but let her stay on the payroll.

Three of the nation's largest bus lines are to be found on the city's streets—New York City Transit, the MTA Bus Co., and MTA Long Island Bus. In all, that's a fleet of 6,200 vehicles. NYCT buses alone carry 2.5 million passengers a day. Add other public-transportation lines, such as New Jersey Transit, and charter lines, such as Academy Coach, and express buses from upstate and Jersey, and the sheer scale of bus traffic is greater here than anywhere else in the country.

But those large vehicles typically get a lot more public attention for their snail-like pace across town than they do for their involvement in collisions. In fact, bus collisions are more common than one might think. In one internal study, for example, records showed that the Transit Authority bus division found over 500 incidents involving buses at just 70 city intersections in a 12-month period spanning 2005 and 2006.

While some of the most serious accidents are investigated by a state oversight body, the vast majority are investigated by the police and bus agencies themselves. The collisions that involve injuries often wind up in court, where the act of determining liability becomes a full-contact affair.

So far this year, bus collisions have claimed the lives of at least six New Yorkers, city transportation figures show, including two motor bikers, a Coney Island pedestrian, and an early-morning cyclist in Queens. The collision rate for NYC Transit buses, meanwhile, has increased since 2004, according to figures contained in a report to the MTA board. More detailed data on the number of collisions, injuries, and fatalities from the state Department of Motor Vehicles and NYC Transit weren't turned over, despite repeated requests.

MTA Long Island Bus, the smallest of the MTA bus agencies, did provide the Voice with figures for Nassau and Suffolk counties, which show that there were 1,500 bus collisions since 2004. Five "non-customers" were killed, and 81 were injured. About one-third of the collisions were rated "preventable."

The number of people killed by buses is a small percentage of total motor-vehicle deaths. Bus collisions caused just 49 of 947 pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in a four-year period, transportation consultant Charles Komanoff reported back in 1999. Cars and trucks, by comparison, caused 793 of the deaths. However, Komanoff also found that bus collisions account for a higher rate of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths per miles driven than every other type of motor vehicle except garbage trucks,

Of course, everyone knows it's dangerous to drive or walk in New York City, and people die all the time in vehicle accidents—380, all told, in 2005. And to be fair, city bus drivers face extraordinary obstacles: schedule pressures, crowded buses, heavy traffic, unpredictable motorists, flaky pedestrians, and nutty passengers.

Back in April, to take just one example, a drunken Queens motorist blew through a red light and came flying through an intersection. No way could the bus driver stop in time. Fifteen bus passengers were injured, and the drunk's passenger nearly died. There was also the case of a woman who jaywalked while talking on her cell phone and was struck and killed by a bus she didn't see coming. And there's the bus driver arrested August 3 in Queens after he got into an argument with a passenger who refused to give up his seat to an elderly woman, and then took a cell phone and smacked the man on the head.

Like any other person, a bus driver has the potential to do something stupid. But there are two major differences between bus drivers and regular motorists: One, they are operating 20-ton vehicles, and two, they are professional drivers with special licenses who have been trained to follow rules and procedures specifically designed to prevent accidents.

But in many cases, they kill. And the Voice found that in numerous cases, drivers managed to hold onto their paychecks, and victims or their families found themselves battling for years against an aggressive legal foe.

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