Bus Kill

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

As for the collisions involving empty buses, Henderson says they might occur because drivers are operating at faster speeds than when they are carrying passengers and are taking routes that are less well-traveled by buses. Fabian says there's some statistical relevance to the theory that drivers might be a bit less cautious when driving without passengers.

"If you're going on break or at the end of the line, it's human nature to be a little less cautious," he says. "TA drivers are trained to be vigilant in those situations."

While Fabian wouldn't say that schedule pressure on drivers was a direct factor in collisions, he did say that running late might add a little higher level of anxiety.

There might be other factors at work as well. Ken Stewart, an advocate for people with limited eyesight, says he was told by a Transit Authority official that there has been a recent spike in bus/pedestrian collisions associated with the introduction of hybrid buses.

Hybrid buses run on a combination of diesel and electric power, and thus operate much more quietly than a standard bus. The Transit Authority currently uses about 600 hybrids.

"I have a hunch that a lot of people, including low-vision people, depend on the sounds of approaching vehicles," Stewart says. He says he has asked the TA to hold off on using hybrids until a device that generates noise can be placed on the vehicles.

The fact that hybrid buses run more quietly, Fabian says, is a safety issue. In addition, he says, electric buses accelerate more quickly than diesel buses. The Transit Authority, he says, has moved to reset the acceleration in those vehicles so that it more closely matches the slower buses.

Andrew Albert, of the New York Transit Riders Council, suggested that better signs may reduce pedestrian deaths. Some cities use "walk" signs that count down the amount of time left before the light changes from green to red, allowing pedestrians to more accurately gauge how much time they have to cross the street.

Fabian points out that though there was a spike in pedestrian fatalities involving Transit Authority buses in 2005 and 2006, there has been just one so far this year.

Fabian attributed the spike to new types of buses, the view obstructions, some complacency on part of drivers, and an increase in pedestrian traffic. The TA, Fabian says, responded by adding new safety programs, sending out managers to monitor driver habits, and researching ways to reduce view obstructions.

"They do a very honest and sincere job in trying to reduce accidents," Fabian says of the Transit Authority.

The Transit Authority runs a bus training facility on Zerega Avenue in the Bronx, which houses a sophisticated bus-driving simulator. New drivers undergo background checks and have to pass a probationary period.

In a recent court deposition, a top TA safety official said drivers receive extensive training, road and written tests every two years, and an annual review of their driving record. Each crash is investigated, with an internal report generally produced within 30 days.

The PTSB reports also cover a range of mechanical malfunctions, some of which may give the average straphanger some pause the next time they board a bus.

There was, for example, the time in June 2006 when a bus driver on the Staten Island Expressway hit the brakes to avoid a sudden stop, and the bus didn't respond. The driver, who had seven prior accidents, narrowly avoided a major calamity.

Tests later showed that a broken seal was leaking oil onto the braking surface. Worse, investigators found that the brakes had been in bad shape for some time, but no one had reported it.

Or there was the time on the Gowanus Expressway when a bus driver realized that his rear brakes weren't working—while he was driving 50 miles an hour. The ensuing crash injured two people. At that speed, the driver would have needed 245 feet to stop, but police determined he was following too closely and gave him a ticket. He also should have checked the brakes before he left on his route.

And then there was the time last October in Queens when a bus driver, rolling down Merrick Boulevard, looked down and saw one of his wheels rolling alongside the bus. He stopped; the wheel kept going until it bounced off a van. Tests later showed that someone had forgotten to tighten the bolts that held the wheel onto the bus. A supervisor in the mechanical division was subsequently suspended.

As thorough as the PTSB reports are, the agency only investigates a small percentage of collisions, and not even all of the most serious ones. Under its rules, the PTSB only probes mechanical failures, fatalities, or incidents with five or more injuries. In practice, that means the state would not examine an incident where a lone person was injured, even if the injury was severe.

The state, for example, won't investigate how 13-year-old Bernard Caraballo of Queens suffered serious head injuries from a bus on his way to school on the morning of September 6, 2006.

Caraballo was standing in a yellow-striped safety zone in the middle of Rockaway Boulevard with his 13-year-old brother when he was hit by a bus being operated by veteran driver Johnnie Woodruff. The police report says that Caraballo was "playing" in the safety zone.

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