Muni’s Safety Chief Defends Agency at Supes Hearing

3787192907_fe41678b50_2_.jpgNew Muni Chief Safety Officer Jim Dougherty, left, at the scene of the August 3rd historic streetcar crash. Photo: Bryan Goebel
Muni's new chief safety officer went before a Board of Supervisors committee today to explain what's being done to prevent crashes like the two major rail collisions that have happened in the last month. Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who chaired the hearing, said the crash at Market and Noe Streets on August 3rd, in which an SUV was crushed between two historic F-line streetcars, "could easily have been a fatal accident."

It was the second time this month that Muni officials have been publicly grilled on safety issues. The hearing covered much of the same ground as the August 4th MTA board meeting, but it included testimony from the driver of the Nissan Pathfinder that was crushed by the historic streetcars and a man who said he was chatting with the F-line driver several minutes before the crash.

It felt like being "crushed in a trash compactor," said Chris Ward, the driver of the SUV. "My life was involved and the life of my partner."

Ward said he has supported the F-line since its inception, but is disturbed that "there may have been some negligence involved" on the part of the operator. "We need to make sure that cutbacks and adjustments are made in a way that doesn't imperil the safety of the city," said Ward.

IMG_4517_1_1.jpgSupervisors Chris Daly, Bevan Dufty, and Sean Elsbernd sought answers on Muni's safety procedures. Photo: Michael Rhodes

Dufty noted his appreciation that Ward is only seeking a replacement for his vehicle, which was totaled in the collision, and is not pursuing further damage compensation from the city.

Another person involved in the collision, a passenger on the streetcar, defended the operator and said he was not talking to a passenger at the time of the crash. 

"When I got home and listened to the news, I was outraged how people were saying that the driver was talking to someone from blocks away, and he was distracted, and that's the reason the accident happened. That is not true. I'm here to set the record straight," Norman Tanner said during the public comment period. "I am the gentleman that was talking to the driver for a short period of time. Before he ran into the SUV, I had already sat down about five minutes prior to that, and I know that he was not talking to no one."

"How he got distracted, I don't know," he added.

The hearing was one of the first public introductions of new Muni safety head Jim Dougherty, who was appointed in March. "I was at both the accidents scenes to see what happened and why it happened," said Dougherty, who gave an updated account of the July 18th West Portal crash as well.

MTA chief Nat Ford was not present at the meeting for "family reasons," Dufty said.

The "striking LRV was traveling at 23 miles per hour at the point of impact," said Dougherty. The "on-scene investigation did not reveal any mechanical problems," and the "operator told the NTSB during an interview he blacked out and was awoken by the crash."

Dougherty defended Muni's safety record over the last several years, citing declines in overall collisions, but Dufty questioned whether the number of severe crashes has actually decreased. Dougherty did not have a direct answer, but said the MTA is "looking to improve on our data gathering, so we have meaningful data." In a later exchange, outgoing Muni Chief Operator Officer Ken McDonald said pedestrian collisions are down from 65 total in 2008 to 19 through July of this year. "Collisions and pedestrian accidents are two of the major focuses we have on reducing accidents and improving safety," said McDonald.

Dufty also cited concerns about having the same safety manual for rail and bus operators. Dougherty said that will soon change. "We are planning to have a new rail rulebook out in September," Dougherty said, and "a new bus rulebook out by the end of the year."

Dougherty  addressed various other concerns, including cell phone use by drivers, which he said the agency is working to crack down on.

He also discussed retraining for operators who have been in multiple unavoidable crashes. In the past, Muni has not required additional training for drivers with such a record, which Dufty said "didn't make sense." Dougherty said Muni is looking at changing this.

Responding to Supervisor Sean Elsbernd's questions, Dougherty also reassured the Supervisors that the MTA would not sacrifice safety for on-time performance.

"This has been framed as between on-time performance and safety," said Elsbernd. "By far, the number one priority is safety. No one is going to get a citation for not being on time, correct?"

"That is correct, sir," said Dougherty.

Debra Johnson, chief of staff at the MTA, later clarified that "no one has been terminated solely for not adhering to the schedule," though it was a factor in the termination of nine people last year.

That's a point the operators and unions have protested. "That's where we kind of disagree," said Rafael Cabrera, vice president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A. "A lot of times we sacrifice performance for safety."

In another ongoing controversy, Dufty said he hopes to see "regular riding by police officers" on buses and trains, referring to the MOU signed between the MTA and the SFPD recently. "That is not just about fare evasion and safety on the vehicles, it helps to provide oversight and accountability."

Though he said he was "impressed" by Dougherty so far, Dufty said he found it concerning that the chief safety officer position had gone unfilled for 18 months prior to Dougherty's arrival.

Supervisor Chris Daly was largely detached from the meeting, saying he had "mixed feelings" about it. He chided Dufty early on for not using his control of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board to "pull the purse strings" at the MTA.

"It's a bigger issue than two accidents. We have just come through a budget where we've seen significant service cuts" and fare increases, said Daly. "Now you've got to pay $2 to get in an accident on Muni."