Bus drivers urge SEPTA to reposition mirrors to protect pedestrians

Posted: February 12, 2013

Invisible pedestrians are a nightmare for bus drivers, who live in fear of running over people they can't see.

Three pedestrians were killed in 63 accidents with SEPTA buses in 2012, the most in recent history.

Now, bus drivers are urging SEPTA to reposition outside rearview mirrors, contending they create a blind spot that endangers pedestrians, especially during left turns.

The drivers have an ally in David Sale of Vancouver, Wash., whose daughter Danielle, 22, was killed by a left-turning bus in Portland, Ore., in 2010.

"We don't have to put drivers in that position," Sale said last week. The driver who killed his daughter and another woman and injured three others was fired, and "she got a life sentence the day she hit my daughter," Sale said. "She'll have to live with that every day for the rest of her life."

Sale met with SEPTA bus drivers last week and traveled to Harrisburg with officials of the drivers' union to lobby legislators for the change.

SEPTA officials acknowledge mirrors create temporary blind spots, but they have resisted refitting mirrors on their fleet of 1,400 buses, saying that could cause other safety issues. Instead, SEPTA has increased driver training to teach operators how to reduce blind spots.

From 2000 through 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 462 pedestrians were killed by transit buses in this country.

Last year, 13 SEPTA pedestrian accidents involved left-turning buses, down from 17 in 2011 and 19 in 2010, and up from six in 2008, said Michael R. Liberi, chief surface transportation officer.

"Collisions involving buses turning left and pedestrian contact usually result in serious injuries and, sometimes, fatalities," Liberi wrote in a memo to drivers last year, urging them to adjust mirrors, seats, and steering wheels and to move around in their seats to improve visibility.

Drivers are especially critical of the left-side mirrors on SEPTA's New Flyer buses, which make up the bulk of the fleet. Those vertical mirrors, about 14-by-7 inches, are bolted next to the roof pillar and can obscure drivers' views of people or cyclists.

Yolanda Snowden, a driver with 15 years' experience, bent low in the driver's seat to demonstrate how she peers under the mirror to see if pedestrians are in a crosswalk when she makes a left turn.

"A mirror up high would work better," Snowden said. "This really blocks the person. It's not the driver's fault; it's the mirror."

Ted Warner, a driver for 30 years, recalled a near-miss several years ago.

"I was going to make a left onto Cheltenham, and I saw the people on the sidewalk and thought it was clear. Then, someone screamed, 'Oh my God,' and this woman ran ahead of the bus. She was in the crosswalk, and I never saw her. It scared the [expletive] out of me."

Drivers said they preferred smaller, square mirrors that are installed on other bus models.

But Liberi said changing the mirrors, which cost $266 each, could cause other problems.

"The size of the mirror is for clear visibility toward the back of the bus," he said. "If you make it too small, are you creating another hazard?"

And he said roof-mounted "euro-style" mirrors could draw a driver's eyes up and away from the road.

"The operator has a fundamental responsibility to make sure the pathway is clear," Liberi said.

The issue is a national problem, said Greg Hull, director of operations, safety, and security for the American Public Transportation Association.

Devices such as cameras, sensors, flashing lights, and audible signals have been tried by other transit agencies, with varying degrees of success. But Hull said too many alerts can be an additional distraction for drivers.

Last year, Cleveland's transit agency won a national safety award for its efforts to reduce pedestrian accidents.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority shifted bus mirrors, improved training, outfitted buses with beeping signals and flashing lights, and introduced a "talking bus."

A recorded voice on all 400 buses now warns: "Caution, pedestrians, bus is approaching."

After the changes, Cleveland buses hit no pedestrians between March 2009 and January 2011, saving millions of dollars on accident claims.


Contact Paul Nussbaum

at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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