Bus Kill

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

In most of the collisions—43 of the 47—investigators concluded that the crashes were preventable but for the driver's handling of the incident. In 18 of the cases, for example, drivers failed to slow down when approaching an intersection, as required. In eight cases, the driver failed to see a pedestrian crossing the street or to yield the right of way. In six cases, the driver was speeding; in five, they were tailgating. In three cases, the driver failed to check that his brakes were working before he left the depot. And in one case, the driver ran a red light, injuring seven people.

Most of the drivers had prior collisions in their driving records in the preceding three years. In 26 cases, the driver had prior accidents that were ruled preventable by industry standards. In 15 cases, drivers had prior preventable and non-preventable accidents. One driver had seven prior accidents. Another had 10. In eight cases, drivers had traffic violations on their civilian driving records.

The MTA's bus agencies often seek to fire drivers faulted for particularly bad collisions, but those drivers often wind up with a suspension or a demotion. That was the case in 10 of the crashes.

Bus collisions also seem to occur at some intersections more often than others. In 2006, two pedestrians died at East Gun Hill Road and Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx. Eva Schweizer, 81, a Holocaust survivor, was killed that January, and Ellen Mary McHugh, 66, was killed in November.

There are also cases where bus drivers claimed they didn't notice that they had struck and killed a pedestrian and continued on their route. The Voice found at least three such cases, including the New Jersey Transit driver who waited until he finished his shift before telling his supervisor that he "thought he might have been involved in an accident." That driver was subsequently fired.

Another bus accident similar to the one that killed Levine happened on July 3, 2006. Gay Wiener, an East Side resident, was in a crosswalk at East 57th Street and First Avenue with the signal giving her the right of way when she was hit by the front left side of a riderless MTA bus making a left turn and dragged 20 feet. The driver, Tara Auston, told investigators that she never saw Wiener.

The police issued four tickets to Auston for making an improper turn, disobeying a sign, and failing to yield to a pedestrian. That was a rarity. Police issued tickets in just four of the 73 PTSB cases.

The PTSB ruled the accident "preventable." Auston was permanently suspended from driving and eventually quit her job.

In written tributes, Wiener was remembered for her "friendship, strength and integrity." Wiener's husband, Mark, is now suing the TA. He declined to speak to the Voice, and his attorney didn't return phone calls.

Richard Bright, an actor who portrayed mob enforcer Al Neri in the Godfather films, was killed in February 2006, this time by a charter bus making a left turn. A lawsuit filed by his executor against Academy Bus claims the driver made the turn on Columbus Avenue without signaling. Bright was dragged under the rear tire. The driver, apparently unaware that he had hit anyone, kept going and had to be located later by police.

Anna Dymburt, a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Brooklyn, was also killed in a crosswalk by a bus making a left turn. Dymburt was hit in March 2006 by the front bumper of the bus, fell underneath, and was dragged at least 40 feet, until a motorist yelled to the driver to stop. She was declared dead at the hospital.

The driver, Kenneth Askew, told PTSB investigators he did not realize he had hit anyone. Askew was ticketed for failure to yield. He was fired, but after arbitration, he was allowed to keep a non-driving job, records show.

"We are seeing a number of cases in litigation where people are in the crosswalk but commercial vehicles are making the left turn, maybe thinking they have the right of way as opposed to the pedestrian," said Nicholas Wise, a lawyer representing the Dymburt family in their lawsuit against the Transit Authority.

Wise said he has also come across a number of cases where pedestrians and cyclists get trapped in the rear wheel well. Some jurisdictions have examined placing covers over the well to prevent those kinds of accidents, he said.

"It's a really sad case, because this woman went through so much and survived, only to lose her life this way," Wise said.

What is it with bus drivers and left turns?

Bill Henderson, executive director of the NYTA Riders Council, says left turns are problematic for a couple of reasons. "It's more difficult for the drivers to see someone coming from the same direction as they are when they are making a left turn," he said. "The location of the mirrors and the way the bus is configured may be other factors."

According to Fabian, left-turn deaths typically have two causes. Pedestrian victims were usually crossing away from the bus, and so didn't see the bus making the turn. In addition, the driver's view is blocked by the six-to-eight-inch left-side column that supports the windshield, as well as by the left-side mirror. "Drivers are trained to rock in their seats to look around those obstructions," Fabian says.

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