Civil Servants Behaving Badly, With Deadly Results. What Can Be Done?

The killing of Seth Kahn by MTA bus driver Jeremy Philhower was the fourth instance in a recent spate of pedestrian deaths at the hands of public employees, either on or off the job. These fatalities have brought to light disturbing patterns at both the MTA and NYPD that could be putting more New Yorkers at risk.

textingbusdriver_advance.jpgAn MTA express bus driver texts while on duty. Photo: SI Advance

Following its initial coverage of Kahn’s death, the Daily News reported that MTA has disciplined or fired 170 bus drivers this year for using mobile devices while on the job — an increase of 60 percent over all of 2008. The MTA cites increased enforcement as the reason behind the upswing, implying that many of these same drivers have engaged in such grossly negligent behavior for some time. Philhower himself had been suspended for texting while driving, and NYC Transit reportedly wanted to fire him, but an arbitration ruling put him back behind the wheel. He was issued a ticket for failing to yield in Kahn’s death, and could again face sanctions from his employer.

The News also reported this week that union reps want NYPD to alter the way it manages shift assignments for detectives. Under the current system, in which shifts can be separated by as little as seven hours, many detectives apparently find themselves with three options: sleep at the precinct house; drive home to the suburbs, then drive back to work with very little rest; or go out and get drunk. In September, off-duty homicide detective Timothy Duffy died when he crashed into a garbage truck on the BQE. Writes the News:

Duffy had ended his shift at 2 a.m. and was due back at work that morning. Rather than drive home to Suffolk County, he remained in the city and had been drinking before the accident, police sources said.

It isn’t clear whether changes sought by the Detectives Endowment Association could have prevented the death of Drana Nikac, the 67-year-old grandmother run down by Kevin Spellman in the Bronx, and they would not have saved Vionique Valnord, killed by Officer Andrew Kelly in Brooklyn. In addition to lobbying the department for more humane working hours, police unions should also try to prevent their members from choosing to drink and drive, for their sake and everyone else’s. When the police commissioner convenes a special panel in response to repeat fatal offenses committed by your membership, it’s clearly time for action.

In addition to Nikac and Kahn, Dorothea Wallace was killed last week by Damon Padmore, a corrections officer with a suspended license, while, though accounts differ regarding the exact circumstances of his death, Luis
Rivera of the Bronx was struck and killed by a city bus driver on Halloween.

We have no statistical data to refer to when it comes to injuries and fatal crashes involving civil servants, but given recent events, it’s an issue that deserves attention from within and without. New Yorkers have a right to expect all public agencies — and especially police and transit workers — to uphold the highest standards of safety on city streets.

  • Eric

    Anytime you are on a bus and see a driver texting or talking on their cell phone, got to this MTA link, http://mta-nyc.custhelp.com/cgi-bin/mta_nyc.cfg/php/enduser/ask.php. File a complaint, eventually they are going to get to many complaints to ignore. It shouldn’t matter if the bus is moving or stopped at a light.

  • mike

    I just had a run-in with an uncivil servant today.

    I was riding down the Kent Ave bike lane, and had just avoided the private car of an NYPD employee parked in the lane, when yet another cop (also driving in his private car) was driving towards me!

    I told him that he can’t drive in a bike lane. Cop said “yeah, but you’re riding the wrong way”, obviously completely oblivious to the copious lane markings plastered everywhere indicating that it’s a two-way lane I corrected him but he didn’t seem too thrilled to be corrected.

  • What about Shami Chaikin, run down and seriously injured by a Parks Department garbage truck last week?

  • How many bus drivers are there? 1000? 2000? 170 drivers disciplined could be a huge percentage…

    The TWU needs to get on top of this as this sounds like a major issue that could tie up their time in defending union members on an issue that the public has no sympathy for them.

    Can bus drivers be individually sued in civil court for wrongful death?

  • JasonM

    What can be done?

    How about all of those blue-state voters realizing that public-employee unions serve no other purpose than to provide themselves with the most egregiously feathered nests, and the public with most abysmal level of public service?

    Bien-pensant liberal media ignores this fact out of either ideological selective blindness or tactical political calculation.

    “Unionized public employee does something terrible and borderline criminal, receives slap on wrist and fat pension at age 50” is a dog-bites-man story. It’s astonishing to me that anyone’s even astonished that something like this could happen. Examples could be multiplied ad infinitum, but why not pick a couple from those right-wing propaganda machines, the New Yorker and the LA Times?

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-teachers3-2009may03,0,679507.story
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/31/090831fa_fact_brill

  • agree with JasonM, although I do see signs of changing attitudes and the public at large finally realizing how they are continually fleeced

  • I’m pretty sure that private enterprises are also unable to discipline their employees who kill with an automobile outside of working hours. Assuming no charges are filed, of course.

  • Jonathan: most private employment is at-will. If someone fired can’t show they were fired because they were members of a protected class or engaging in protected activities, they can be fired for any reason.

  • Mr. G.

    ACCESS-A-RIDE. Is it one word or two? All I can say is that these drivers often behave like they’re behind the wheel of a sports car.

  • K6-III

    I realize this would be hard to push through, but how doesn’t it make sense for city workers to be required to live in the city, and police to live in the districts they serve? All the more reason to have the workers care more about the work they do, and a better return on tax investment, with more of the paychecks spent in the city anew.

  • K6-III, I agree. To understand how difficult it would be, see this post by Larry Littlefield. I’m not suggesting we accept the status quo. But defining a path to a city residential requirement will be a tough lift and make take generations.

  • Mark: Government’s like a bag of bricks. All we gotta do is set it down.

  • Well, at least in the transit case we can take and share more of the sort of pictures which brought attention to the Staten Island driver you picture.

    I’ve started a flickr group to bring together some of these pictures:

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/mta-malfeasance/

    As they say: “Don’t get mad, get video!”

  • Jonathan: What are you talking about? This guy was driving an MTA bus and killed someone with it. He wasn’t driving his own personal car.

    An out-of-service bus doesn’t mean that he was off the job.

  • Ben, I agree with you. My comment no. 7 was in response to the automatic “if something is wrong with civil servants, then something is wrong with civil service” line of reasoning that had come up earlier in the thread.

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