A Bus Design Flaw Is No Reason to Gut the Right of Way Law

As part of its campaign to make it legal for bus drivers to injure and kill people, the Transport Workers Union says flawed bus design is to blame for bus drivers hitting pedestrians while turning.

Ella Bandes was killed by a bus driver turning right in 2013.

According to WABC, the TWU claims “half of all recent bus accidents” in NYC and nationwide occurred because drivers were prevented from seeing pedestrians while turning left. TWU and the Amalgamated Transit Union say the issue is that driver visibility is obstructed by the left-hand windshield pillar and the driver’s side rear view mirror.

“There’s a blind spot that’s 14 inches wide that obscures not only one pedestrian but as many as 15,” ATU International President Larry Hanley told WCBS. The unions say “newly-designed” buses are the problem.

Of the nine crashes in 2014 where an MTA bus driver killed a pedestrian, three drivers were reportedly turning left and five were turning right. I looked back through media reports on those eight crashes. Most didn’t have photos from the scene, but of the three that did, each bus was a different model.

In a statement, the MTA said bus drivers are trained to see pedestrians by “leaning into and out of their mirrors while seated to ensure that their line of sight is not obstructed.”

Mayor de Blasio said Wednesday that if it poses a threat to safety, bus design should be looked at. “But in the here and now,” de Blasio said, “our message to everyone in this city, whether they work for the city, or they work for the MTA, or a private individual, is you have to drive safely. You have to yield to pedestrians. You have to respect that there’s new laws now that clearly penalize those who do not yield to pedestrians.”

If it turns out that MTA buses were built in such a way that endangers people, by all means, fix the buses. But as the mayor indicated, everyone who drives in NYC must yield to people walking. A bus design flaw is no reason to gut the Right of Way Law.

  • Bob

    So what they’re really saying is that the new bus design has a major safety flaw that’s already caused deaths, but it’s only been raised as an issue now that bus drivers might be held accountable for these deaths. Doesn’t that demonstrate exactly why we need a right of way law?

  • Aaron

    Exactly my thoughts.

    If this is a problem, why didn’t the TWU make an issue of it sooner?

    Seems to demonstrate that the ROW Law is working exactly as it should.

  • ahwr

    That pillar is an issue in cars too.

    http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2015/01/30/no-charges-for-person-who-killed-man-walking-his-dog-in-a-kirkland-crosswalk/

    Prosecutors for the City of Kirkland will not pursue any charges against
    the woman who struck and killed Kyle Warnick while he walked his dog in
    a city crosswalk September 15. He was 43.


    Investigators reenacted the circumstances using a similar Toyota Prius
    at a similar time of day and determined that “it was difficult to see
    the pedestrian due to the “A” pillar of the Toyota.”

    It’s an underappreciated danger. Is it so much worse in buses? Good thing they’re only driven by capable professionals.

    If a road curves just right or you’re turning you need to slow down and lean around in your seat to know what’s in front of you. Something too many drivers skip, especially when they’re in a rush. If there’s money for a vision zero ad campaign I’d focus it on reminding drivers of this blind spot.

  • c2check

    Seems like a pretty glaring design flaw.
    Wonder if the MTA has been in contact with the manufacturer of the buses about this.

  • Reader

    One would think that if a blind spot or design flaw played into a crash, that might be determined during an investigation, which is a big part of why the ROW law is necessary. Previously, these crashes simply weren’t investigated, beyond taking the driver’s account of what happened.

    So if a blind spot was a factor, either it would cause the cops to not bring charges or, if they did anyway, could be used as an eventual criminal defense.

  • abcdef

    If theres a design flaw that makes these buses unsafe to operate, then guess what, THEY CAN NOT BE OPERATED.

    It’s bizarre, this is the TWU making the case for immediately shutting down any bus transport.

  • Joe R.

    Or maybe making the case they shouldn’t be operated by humans. Seriously, while we’re not quite there yet with autonomous vehicles, the TWU should be aware that in maybe 5 to 10 years they’re going to have to put forth a really good case on why we should continue to let humans operate buses instead of automating them. Trying to excuse bus drivers and/or blaming flaws on vehicle design for pedestrian deaths is a very poor start. To me this just makes the case for self-driven buses sooner rather than later.

  • Tyson White

    What amazes me about this whole debate is that the Transit Workers Union still has NO EXPLANATION as to what happened to 14 year old Jiahuan Xu. They don’t explain WHY it should be deemed an “accident” other than the fact he was driving a bus and that he does it for living.

  • sbauman

    Today’s Queens Chronicle has a bit more to add.

    http://www.qchron.com/editions/queenswide/union-sees-fatal-flaw-in-buses/article_feb3bf7b-e0cc-5617-8b81-5ab5f17d38d8.html

    “The ATU said that when the maker of the MTA buses, Orion, was presented with the problems, the company was “horrified” and offered a fix that would cost only $300 per bus to implement.”

    If this is true, I’d assume the MTA is busy shredding documents and deleting emails.

  • sbauman

    The bus involved in this collision was of the dangerous type described by the ATU’s press release. Three of the last four MTA buses that was involved in a similar, serious/fatal left turn accident was of the same type.

    The ATU press release indicates that union knew about the problem for some time. Orion went out of business in June 2013. If as alleged by the ATU the MTA declined Orion’s offer to fix the problem, that refusal had to come before Orion ceased operation.

    If true it means both the unions and the MTA have been covering up a known safety defect. Both should be held accountable for ignoring the public’s welfare.

    The unions see their mission narrowly: protect their members. The public should let them know that their individual members will not be protected from row misdemeanor charges when operating an unsafe vehicle. The only way unions will be able to protect their members will be for them to alert the public to unsafe conditions when they are discovered.

  • Andrew

    Drivers appear to be divided on what it means to yield to pedestrians.
    One interpretation is that they can keep going unless they happen to notice a pedestrian.

    Another interpretation is that they must not proceed until they are certain that their intended move won’t conflict with a pedestrian’s.

    The second is incontrovertibly the correct interpretation. The first only makes sense if the pedestrian is in the wrong. But if the pedestrian is in the wrong, there is no obligation to yield, only the obligation to exercise due care. Yet many drivers seem to believe that they’re doing a favor when they yield to pedestrians crossing the street with the light, as if there were a more appropriate time for them to cross!

    This is the education campaign we need. (In far fewer words.)

  • ahwr

    they must not proceed until they are certain that their intended move won’t conflict with a pedestrian’s.

    Even when that’s a driver’s intention it’s not enough if they don’t understand where their blind spots are.

  • MtotheI

    These Orion VII Next Gens are operated by transit agencies across the country and in Canada. If all of the killings are due to a bus defect, there should be a traceable spate of pedestrian deaths and injuries from left turning buses in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, Houston, Toronto, Chicago’s suburbs, Ottowa, Sacramento, New Orleans, Seattle, upstate New York, Erie PA, San Juan PR, etc. While there have been some reported defects re: this model bus, none that I know of were based on blind spots due to mirror placement.

    All buses have blind spots and drivers are specifically trained how to manage a blind spot. Heck, so did I when I learned to drive. The only evidence that I have seen to corroborate this assertion of a defect is from our local media pictures/video taken at almost at the level of the steering wheel when a drivers eyes would be much higher.

    Until I see further proof of that these problems are observed by operators across North America, I will tend to believe that this is bullshit made up to try and protect union members who failed to drive safely and ended up maiming a teenage girl and killed a man crossing in the crosswalk with the right of way.

  • J_12

    considering that we still have 2 people operating every subway train we we could have gone to 1 or even 0 some years ago, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for buses without operators.
    In NYC, that is. I’m sure the google buses in northern CA will be running driverless soon enough.

  • J_12

    The claim that this bus design is SO dangerous does not seem to be supported – the incidence of collisions with this bus design, across NYC and other municipalities, is quite low statistically. Clearly, most bus drivers can handle it. I am not sure whether there is any significant difference between collisions with the bus design in question and other designs, but I suspect the sample sizes are so low that there is not.

    In that case, human error would seem to be at fault. Meaning, bus drivers should actually perform the important part of their job function which is to avoid hitting people.

  • Joe R.

    You’re right although in the case of subway trains I might see the logic of having 1 or 2 people there to assist evacuation of up to 2000 passengers in an emergency in the middle of a tunnel. I can’t think of any reason to have a human on board a bus at all other than to drive it. If we can automate that function, then the reason for having the human is gone.

  • QueensWatcher

    This whole assertion is rubish. As you APPROACH an intersection, before you get there you should be looking ahead and scanning the corners for pedestrians. You should already know when you reach the intersection that there is a pedestrian approaching it and you double check the location of that pedestrian before you execute the turn. If you wait until you are turning the wheel to check for pedestrians, then you are driving recklessly.

  • Bolwerk

    We’re probably decades away from driverless buses in mixed traffic anywhere for no other reason than people won’t go for it. Driver-freedumb is an illusion of control, and automation requires giving up that illusion. Even with rail automation is not exactly regarded as safe unless there is a completely grade separated ROW with no interfering traffic.

    I could see automated vehicles serving niche purposes (e.g., shuttling Google/Apple people between their parking lots and the hideous office parks Kalifornian suburbanites drool over).

  • Bolwerk

    That makes sense, but it’s only needed at rush hour and probably at certain points along a line – probably certain stations. Sort of like how token booth clerks are only needed at certain places at certain times.

    A night train might run at 5% capacity. The TWU would argue for putting conductors on buses if they could get away with it.

  • D’BlahZero

    Human operators for freight elevators are not terribly common, but I still see them from time to time.

  • Bolwerk

    Unless something has changed in the past four years, I think Gramercy still has them in the passenger elevators.

  • neroden

    If they don’t understand where their blind spots are, they shouldn’t be driving and shouldn’t have a license.

    This is doubly true for COMMERCIAL drivers who drive for a living and routinely drive the same vehicle for many many hours of many many days.

  • Andrew

    Intentions aren’t enough. It’s impossible to be certain that no pedestrian is approaching without acknowledging and compensating for one’s blind spots.
    From what I’ve seen, drivers who fail to yield typically do so for either of two reasons. Reason #1 is that they fail to look for pedestrians at all – this often occurs on left turns off of two-way streets, when some drivers are so preoccupied with watching oncoming vehicular traffic that they forget to also watch for pedestrians. Reason #2 is that they see pedestrians and deliberately challenge them. I don’t think it’s common for someone who remembers to look for pedestrians and who intends to yield to them to be thwarted by a blind spot.

    Frankly, I think the best education campaign is a massive uptick in enforcement, even when the pedestrian isn’t actually struck. Start with a few weeks of warnings and move on to fines, hundreds per day per precinct. (In my ideal world the fine would be in the area of $500, with driving suspensions for repeat offenders.)

  • Miles Bader

    We’re a lot farther away than “not quite there yet”…

    The autonomous vehicle tech developed by Google depends on operating in a fairly constrained pre-mapped environment, and reacts to anything unusual by stopping. This might work OK on large high-speed roads with little non-vehicular activity, but it’s unlikely to work so well in very complicated and dynamic urban environments…

    Maybe a better halfway-point would be “brake assist” tech, which would use radar/cameras/whatever to detect pedestrians or other vehicles on a likely collision coarse, and automatically slow or stop the bus and point out the issue to the driver. [One question of course, is whether bus drivers will then start to drive more recklessly, depending on the automation to keep them out of trouble!]

    [For trains, of course, the more constrained environment makes it easier to automate them, and there’s already a fair amount of practical experience with them… so presumably driverless trains will become more popular once the labor relations issues get sorted out…]

  • Miles Bader

    Japanese department stores often had elevator operators (“elevator girls”) up until at least the late ’90s… maybe some do, although I haven’t seen any personally since then.

    There wasn’t really much practical purpose for them, as the elevators were simply normal elevators with floor buttons (they’d just push the buttons for you and announce what was on each floor etc), but I think they were viewed as an expression of customer service, and of course you could ask them for advice etc.

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