Muni Crashes Dominate MTA Board Meeting

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nat_ford_1.jpgNat Ford gives the MTA Board a safety update. Photo by Bryan Goebel.
MTA Chief Nat Ford sought to assure the MTA Board of Directors today that the agency is taking the appropriate steps to address safety concerns, despite two high-profile crashes in two weeks that he called "disturbing."

"We are displeased with the latest performance as it relates to the safety of Muni," said Ford. "Overall, I think we'll see later on that we're having overall trends in the right direction. These last two major incidents are very disturbing, and there's been a great deal of work since those incidents to enhance safety."

The latest crash happened yesterday at Noe and Market streets when an F-line "Peter Witt" streetcar slammed into the back of a Nissan SUV, which then crashed into the back of another streetcar. Six people, including the operator of the streetcar and the driver of the car, were injured. 

The NTSB is investigating the West Portal crash of July 18th, but Ford said Muni has already proceeded to implement changes to insure safety, including announcements being made every half hour informing drivers to secure approval from Central Control before changing modes from manual to automatic or vice-versa.

Ford also said a system called DriveCam will be implemented by the end of September on buses. It video records operator performance as well as street conditions ahead of the vehicles. It allows Central Control to intervene if the "operator is having a problem with operation or braking of their vehicles," said Ford. Such a system does not yet exist for LRVs, but Ford said Muni would move towards implementing it once it does.

Ford brought MTA Chief Operating Officer Ken McDonald to speak to the Board about Muni safety. McDonald, who will be resigning from his position in October, cited figures showing collision safety improvements.

"No accident is acceptable," McDonald said. "We are working on going to zero accidents in the agency, and I merely want today to provide some data regarding the safety performance of the organization."

irwin_lum.jpgUnion president Irwin Lum speaks to reporters outside the MTA Board meeting.
Discussing various charts presented to the board, McDonald said, "This trend showcases there has been a steady decline in overall safety incidents from May of 2007 to June of 2009." He said there have been "constant improvements in the safety operation of the transit system."

In January through June 2008 compared to January through June 2009, McDonald said there has been a 37 percent decrease in collisions; 56 percent decrease in pedestrian collisions with light rail vehicles, and a 56 percent decrease in derailment.

Nevertheless, the Board appeared vexed by last night's crash as well as the West Portal collision, since neither resulted from mechanical failures that could be fixed.

There were "multiple points of failure before this type of collision could occur," said Ford. "That's what we're still investigating here."

Responding to questions from Board Chair Tom Nolan, Ford said the MTA does not discipline drivers for running late. "We do not forgo safety in lieu of on-time performance," said Ford. "We expect and we desire and we convey that on-time performance is not at the degradation of safety."

Irwin Lum, the head of the Muni driver's union, said that's not the case, and drivers often are pressured to stay on schedule to a degree that could compromise safety. "It's a no win situation for our operators out there to operate with schedules that are unrealistic," he said.

Director Cameron Beach sought further insight into the street supervisors who oversee Muni drivers, and are themselves former Muni drivers. McDonald confirmed that many of these supervisors are still inexperienced. Of the 52 supervisors, McDonald said, "There are 26 that we have who have been on the job less than 9 months."

The most important recommendation to come out of the NTSB report could be the driver health recommendations.

"We are looking at the rigor of our medical revues in terms of fitness for duty," said Ford. For the NTSB, he said, "This is a front-of-mind topic for them nationally."

"They are looking at making a recommendation that can set precedents in terms of how it relates to the entire nation and these types of incidents."

Ford confirmed that the MTA was anticipating litigation as a result of the West Portal incident and last night's crash. In the event that the liability rises above $5 million, the insurance policy the MTA recently purchased would apply to it.

Bryan Goebel contributed to this report.