By Araceli Cruz
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
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 preventablein 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 streetsNew 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 accidents380, 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.
In March 2006, retired Queens College professor Esther Levine, 82, was on her way home from the grocery store, with the light giving her the right of way at 20th Street and First Avenue, when she was run down in the crosswalk by an out-of-service bus making a left turn.
Levine's son, Robert, an author and college professor living in California, says his mom was very fit and active for someone of her age. She often described herself as "in mint condition."
"She was very physically vital," he says. "Swimming, tennis, bridge. She was getting ready to come out and visit us."
Despite her vitality, Levine was in the most at-risk group in bus/pedestrian collisions: women over 65. Her case was also one of five in the 16 bus-collision deaths examined by the Voice that involved empty or out-of- service vehicles.
And hers was one of seven cases involving a bus making a left turn when it fatally struck a pedestrian. In most of those cases, the drivers told investigators they never saw the victim.
At the driver's disciplinary hearing, Levine's daughter Alice learned that the driver was taking an unauthorized route to the depot when the accident occurred. "He was trying to [get] back to the depot on time, and he took a route that he wasn't supposed to take," she says.
It was also at the disciplinary hearing that the bus driver approached her to express his condolences. "He said, 'I just want you to know how upset and sorry I was,' " she recalls. "He told me, 'I wanted to send you flowers, but I was told not to.' "
In the end, something positive resulted from the tragedy. A group of activists convinced city officials to double the time of the walk signal, says Granville Leo Stephens, who was involved in the effort.
"That corner was outrageous, like an accident waiting to happen," Stephens says.
The Levine family is now suing the Transit Authority over Esther's death. Alice Levine says she decided to back the family's decision to sue largely because the Transit Authority failed to contact her to express condolences over the accident.
"It was like my mother just disappeared," she says. "I felt like someone has to say to me that your mother was killed unnecessarily, but they never contacted me. It's like you're an ant, a speck. It's like human life has no meaning."
Robert Levine agrees. "I would like to see a more humane face from the MTA, a certain understanding that while they need to protect their own, there is a certain responsibility that even a large bureaucracy has," he says.
Just as disturbing as Levine's death is the case of Helen Skillman, a 79-year-old Bayside woman who was on her way to care for a sick sister when she was hit, run over, and then run over again by a Transit Authority bus just after dawn on June 2, 2006. Skillman, the state report says, had stepped off the curb at the bus terminal on Merrick Boulevard in Queens to cross behind a bus when the vehicle backed up. The bus driver had just boarded several children, then checked his mirrors, tapped his horn, and started to roll backward. The rear bumper of the bus hit Skillman and knocked her to the ground. The rear wheels of the bus ran over her legs. The driver, still unaware of what happened, shifted gears and rolled forward, running over Skillman's legs a second time. Finally, a motorist jumped out of his car and shouted a warning to the driver to stop, but it was too late.
State investigators found that the Transit Authority was supposed to have someone present in the terminal to monitor the buses as they back up, but at that time of the day, there was no monitor. According to regulations, the driver should have checked himself, but he didn't.
It may be more troubling that despite looking in his mirrors, the driver still couldn't see Skillman crossing behind his vehicle. That's because the blind spot on the rear of buses can be as wide as a car.
The TA fired the driver, records show, but he appealed the decision and was able to keep his jobthough he was banned from driving a bus again.
The job of investigating the most serious bus accidentsfalls to a largely unheralded state agency called the Public Transportation Safety Board. A Voice examination of 73 PTSB investigations from the past year or so shows a range of collisions in which drivers made serious errors or ignored proce duresoften with tragic consequences.
"Most of these accidents are due to human failures," says John Fabian, chief investigator for the PTSB. "There is always a constant need for oversight and accountability. At the same time, pedestrians need to be just as responsible for their own lives, and not assume the driver will see them."
In all, the reports detail 47 collisions that caused 16 deaths and 241 injuries. (The Voice also found 11 other deaths for which the PTSB had yet to issue conclusions.) The reports also describe 26 cases of fires and serious mechanical problemsincluding instances where wheels literally fell off, brakes malfunctioned, and mechanics failed to do proper safety checks.
In most of the collisions43 of the 47investigators 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.
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 workingwhile 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.
Woodruff, according to the police report, was traveling at 33 miles per hour in a 30-mph zone. But Alan Shapey, Caraballo's lawyer, says his own calculationsbased on the 80-foot skid mark left by the bussuggests that Woodruff was traveling closer to 40 miles an hour and that he had distance to see the youth and slow down. That speeding allegation is the central claim in the lawsuit.
"It's the second day of school," Shapey says. "You see a kid in the street, you slow down. You are a professional driver. You have the power to avoid this."
Woodruff himself claims he was traveling "normal speed," and that Caraballo ran into the roadway against the light.
"Some fool was chasing him," Woodruff told the police, records show. "He was facing me at the time, I tried to stop but I couldn't, I hit the brakes and the bus slid to a stop."
A witness, Judy Moore, blamed the accident on "senseless playfulness by the kids," the police report says. Another witness, Thomas Calderon of Long Island City, said one boy pushed the other and Caraballo lost his balance and fell forward.
Caraballo now wears a helmet to protect his brain from further injury, Shapey said.
Caraballo's family, of course, isn't the only one suing the MTA or its subsidiaries over a bus accident. In fact, the number of bus collisions and the deep pockets of the bus agencies account for a huge legal industry. This year alone, the Transit Authority has been sued 400 times, the vast majority involving personal-injury claims. In 2006, the MTA paid out $160 million in claims, budget records show.
Periodically, the authority gets hammered in court. In May, a Bronx mom crippled by a bus in 2002 won $16.5 million. The bus had crossed a road divider and plowed into her family's vehicle, severing Zulma Betancourt's spine.
Last November, a jury awarded $10 million to Youlanda Scott, who lost a leg when an MTA bus rolled into an enclosed terminal in 2003 while Scott was seated on a bench. The driver claimed he lost control of the bus.
Although bus companies often conclude internally that the collisions were preventable by their standards, their lawyers often play hardball in court with victims. Take the bitter fight in the case of Miguel Montes, an 11-year-old Bronx boy who suffered brain damage when he was hit by a bus in 2001 after running into the street.
In a trial that, according to its transcript, resembled physical combat, Transit Authority lawyer Edward Flores not only blamed Montes for the accident, but he suggested both that the injuries were minor and that the boy's learning disability existed long before the collision.
Flores blamed the boy's problems on his parents, whom he said also had learning difficulties. On top of all that, he declared that the boy came from a troubled home, implying once again that his learning disabilities were pre-existing and were not the result of the crash.
In his closing, Flores said of the child: "This is clearly a case of a person who does something reckless, completely reckless and unsafe, to himself, and then suffers for it and then turns around and blames somebody else and wants to get paid."
The tactic was effective. A jury found in favor of the Transit Authority.
The Montes case was also notable in that the Transit Authority failed to turn over an internal report that concluded that the driver made four mistakes that contributed to the accident.
The Transit Authority almost always sends investigators to accident scenes, and detailed internal reports are usually completed within 30 days. But very little of that work is made public. And agency lawyers fight attempts to use the reports in court.
Shapey only obtained the report nearly two years after the Montes crash, when he learned such reports existed and sent a special subpoena to the Transit Authority.
The central issue in the case was whether the driver saw the boy with enough time to stop his lumbering vehicle. During the trial, Shapey sought to introduce the report as evidence because, he argued, the driver made statements to the TA's investigators that contradicted his trial testimony.
But TA lawyers convinced a judge to block that move. They argued that the report's conclusions involved internal standards that are higher than what would be expected from a motorist under the law.
Thus, the jury never heard those statements and rejected Montes's lawsuit.
Shapey appealed, arguing that the judge erred in blocking the report. On October 23, a state appeals court ruled against Montes. The majority of the panel concluded that the report didn't amount to a conclusion that the driver erred. Instead, they said, it was an analysis of whether the driver's handling of the incident measured up to the TA's internal standards.
Two dissenting judges, however, concluded that the report should have been admitted because "[i]t contains 'admissions' against the TA's interest, or because it contains conclusions based on an analysis by trained investigators," the judges wrote. "Merely stating that the report employed a high[er] standard than the common law does not make it so."
Shapey is currently deciding whether to file a new appeal. And Montes is now 17 years old.
The struggle over those internal reports isn't limited to the Montes case, says Jeffrey M. Kimmel, another lawyer who represents bus-crash victims.
Kimmel recalled the case of Flavio Herrera, a Queens man hit by a bus after being pushed into the roadway during a scuffle with another man on the sidewalk. Herrera lost a leg. He sued, alleging that the driver had seen the scrap and had enough time to stop.
During the lead-up to the trial, the Transit Authority failed to turn over the internal report on the incident, even though Kimmel had sent a subpoena asking for the document. Just before opening arguments, the two sides squabbled over whether all documents had been turned over. The Transit Authority lawyers insisted in court that they had.
Then, in the middle of the trial, a TA expert witness disclosed that he had internal reports on the incident in his file.
"We say, 'What reports?' " Kimmel recalls. "He gives the file to us, and we find a report which was never disclosed, which says the TA's internal investigation found fault with the driver and found skid marks, which they had denied. We went nuts."
The next day, the now-irate judge in the case found the TA liable, called the authority's conduct "egregious," and ordered the jury to simply decide how much money Herrera should get. Jurors awarded him $4.8 million.
"That kind of thing happens in movies, but it's not supposed to happen in the real world, where crucial information comes out in the middle of a trial," Kimmel says.
The lawyers for the MTA claimed that the failure to turn over the report was "inadvertent."
In a second case, Kimmel recalls, the central issue was whether a bus had actually hit a pedestrian and caused a big gash on her head. The bus driver denied his vehicle struck the plaintiff. The plaintiff insisted that it had.
Then, at trial, a Transit Authority witness mentioned on the stand that photographs had been taken at the scene. "We said, 'Photographs? What photographs?' " Kimmel recalls. "And so he pulls out these photos which showed blood on the mirror of the bus."
"If our firm had done that," Kimmel says, "we could have been disbarred. But they get the benefit of the doubt a lot of the time."
In the end, for most people, the stories of buses running over pedestrians are just part of the landscape, as inevitable here as a Yankees playoff series or a parking ticket. But for the families of the dead and injured, the pain never quite goes away.
Robert Levine, for one, hopes that the lawsuit over his mother's death will result in something beyond a monetary settlement.
"I would like to see whatever care that's possible, in terms of driver training or the physical setups of streets, to make it less likely that anything like this will happen again," he says.