Metro buses: Pedestrians in a blind spot?

Crosscut archive image.

A Metro driver goes through an intersection where the light has changed.

The day before her October wedding anniversary, Judy Sunny posted her nuptial portraits from decades earlier on Facebook. One shot captures a tender moment as the then-young bride, with delicate features framed by a flower-studded veil and wearing a sari, receives help with her necklace from the groom, Sunny Kanjirappallil, handsome with dark wavy hair.

“May both of you live happily ever after,” wrote a well-wisher on her page. Less than a month later, on November 18, 2014, that hope would be shattered by a King County Metro Transit bus that struck her while turning left across the crosswalk where she was legally crossing a street.

Metro has faced an increasing number of bus-pedestrian accidents in recent years, leading to stepped-up efforts by the agency to improve safety and educate both drivers and pedestrians to the potential dangers.

Many of the accidents followed Metro’s introduction of a type of bus that some union safety experts believe created particularly large blind spots. The blind spot issue is drawing attention with transit systems nationally, in part because of work by an international union safety expert formerly employed by the union local representing Metro drivers. And the spokesman for a major bus manufacturers’ trade group told Crosscut that the safety expert’s proposal for a redesign to improve sightlines has promise.

Both the state Department of Transportation statistics and Metro’s own figures show that collisions with pedestrians grew substantially after schedules were tightened and drivers had less time to recover. Metro presented figures to Crosscut that indicated a 35 percent jump in bus collisions with walkers in the past four-plus years, from 94 to 127. WSDOT figures, based on calls significant enough to bring an immediate police response, show Metro bus versus pedestrian collisions rose from six in a four year-plus period before the schedule change to 20 over the same time after the speed-up. And eight of those accidents proved to be nearly identical — a bus turning left hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

In addition to Sunny, victims of left-turning buses include a wheelchair-bound woman and a young blind woman, struck as she legally crossed a Belltown street.

In some of the pedestrian crashes examined for Crosscut, hurrying by individual drivers also seem to have been factorsState public records suggest that Metro's overall accident numbers also rose with tighter scheduling of its buses in 2010, a change that has also led to state findings that Metro was doing too little to provide restroom breaks for drivers. But the effects of scheduling changes on accidents generally is far from clear: Metro provided data, collected under federal guidelines, that shows an overall drop in accidents since the schedule changes.

In an interview, Metro officials denied that any cause-and-effect relationship can be drawn between pedestrian accidents and the schedule changes or the new bus model.  The transit agency officials also said Metro has a strong safety record, which the federal statistics bear out.

Metro officials outlined a series of measures they have taken to improve safety since 2014, due to their own tracking of upticks in collisions with people on foot. They include classroom and on-the-road training for all operators. Among other steps, Metro organized a half-day refresher class this year for all drivers, a significant undertaking requiring considerable coordination, and a three-hour pedestrian awareness training in 2014.

Pedestrian deaths in Metro bus collisions remained static after driver recovery times were cut — two each in the four-plus years before and after, according to DOT stats. Neither of those two most recent pedestrian fatalities appeared to be connected with squeezed schedules or bus sightline problems.

In Sunny's case, a Route No. 164 Metro coach, one of the Orion buses whose sightlines have been questioned, approached the stop sign at East Pioneer Street on the east side of the Kent light rail station, shortly before 9 a.m. The bus driven by Mary Ting, then 57, was running five minutes behind schedule when the bus arrived at the previous stop, according to information provided by Metro. Video obtained from the Kent Police Department shows that the driver did not obey the stop sign, instead continuing and making a sharp left-hand turn onto Railroad Avenue North, the one-way loop with bays for more than a dozen bus routes at the Kent transit center.

Sunny, 56, a Kent grandmother of two, was crossing Railroad Avenue in her running shoes with laces that resembled candy canes. As her husband, parked on the east side of Railroad south of the crosswalk, waited for her, Sunny, clad in a red jacket, started to walk, and then saw the bus barreling toward her. She froze momentarily  — then desperately tried to run out of its way. But the left front corner of the bus struck and tossed her to the ground, with the bus’s left front tire running over her legs, causing multiple compound fractures.

Crosscut archive image.
Emergency responders attend to Judy Sunny (Photo obtained from Kent Police records)

“We had just made that turn and it happened so quick,” said rider Sandy Davis, who was standing behind the driver in the crowded coach. “All you could see was somebody coming right in front of the bus. Then we heard a kerplunk — that’s how the driver realized she hit her."

Ting told police she did not see the pedestrian until it was too late to stop. According to the police report, Ting's vision may have been obstructed by a left front pillar on the bus, as she began the turn.

In another of the collisions, Andrea Travis stepped off the curb at First Avenue and Broad Street at dusk on December 3, 2012,  headed toward a birthday celebration for a friend at a local sushi restaurant. The blind pedestrian, then 28, carried a white cane and was clad in a bright red raincoat and plaid galoshes to increase her visibility in traffic when she entered the crosswalk on a walk signal. The driver of the Metro bus hit the public relations professional, as he maneuvered his Orion coach onto Broad Street.

The bus driver who hit Travis, Poy Chinn, 64, a veteran Metro operator, said he didn’t see Travis before the collision, according to the police report.

When the Route 99 International District/Waterfront Loop Shuttle bus struck Travis, she landed face down on the wet street, her head split open, said her attorney, Dave Richardson. The front of the bus that extends beyond the wheels was hovering over Travis. ”Witnesses screamed, ‘Back up, back up, you’re about to run over her,’ " Richardson said. Chinn complied.

She suffered the head wound, a spinal injury that her attorney says may lead to osteoarthritis later, and post-traumatic stress. “I might be in the middle of the street and all of a sudden get freaked out,” she said.

The young woman had moved to Seattle from Idaho, after receiving a bachelor's degree in public relations from the University of Idaho. Having lived in a rural, mountainous town in that state, Richardson said, “She wanted to be in a big city because in those rural areas you can’t have your freedom as a blind person." In Seattle, she was able to rely on Metro for transportation.

Travis said she had taken classes on cautiously navigating as a walker. “I practice safe travel and I’ve been taught in various trainings over the years how to safely cross streets without vision, how to follow the traffic patterns.”

Richardson said, "She’s young and smart and a college grad and she works for The Lighthouse for the Blind. No one’s more careful and more attuned to what you have to do to live as normally as possible as a blind person.” (Travis recently began a new job as development and communications director for Washington Access Fund, which pays for assistive technology for disabled persons.)

In seven out of eight state DOT-reported collisions where a bus hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk as it turned left, that bus was an Orion model. In 2010, King County Metro purchased the buses made by Orion, a now-defunct division of Daimler Buses that stopped taking orders for coaches in 2012.  Orions owned by Metro have an 8-inch wide post on the left side of the windshield. That metal strip, encased in fiberglass, creates a blind spot that can block pedestrians crossing the street in front of a bus as it turns left. Most of those Metro drivers told police at the time of the collisions that they did not see the pedestrian at all — others said they saw the walker but only when it was too late to stop. And several explicitly told police their vision was blocked by that post.

An Amalgamated Transit Union International safety expert attributes those pedestrian accidents and others involving buses making left turns to the design of that large post on the left-hand side of the windshield — in the new buses acquired by Metro in 2011. That design flaw, he said, could have have been fixed before the buses were delivered.

Brian Sherlock, an ATU International safety specialist at Washington, D.C. headquarters, worked with the local Metro union at the time the agency was considering buying the Orions. Several other makes of buses under consideration for purchase by Metro at that time did not have such a significant obstruction, he said.

He says the problem will persist until existing buses are retrofitted.

“It’s inevitable when you obscure vision for drivers,” Sherlock said. “And Orions have epic-scale obstruction.”

Sherlock, then-safety chair of Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 587, was on Metro’s procurement team when it was time to order a new fleet of buses. “We examined the buses and drove the prototypes,” said Sherlock, who took an Orion for a test-spin in the Seattle area. Metro was considering several different makes.

“I saw this problem immediately, “ Sherlock recalled. “I took a little camera, put it under my chin as I went around the corner, around a left turn, the entire street we were about to turn into disappeared from view as we entered the intersection.” Compounding the problem was a tall rectangular side mirror — also about eight inches wide — that nearly doubled the size of the blind spot to more than 14 inches, because of the angle, further concealing pedestrians from the driver.

Sherlock was horrified, and showed his video to an Orion engineer who, he said, had designed the bus to industry standards. “I saw him again a few weeks later, again as part of the procurement process, and he was elated. He was able to get the pillar engineered down to less than the space between your eyes."

“He’s sharp and I thought he was more than capable of doing the engineering,” recalled Sherlock.

Sherlock subsequently stopped driving Metro buses and became a full-time ATU, Local 587 officer, recording secretary, so he didn’t track what happened. But when he saw the new fleet of buses — Orions — that began arriving in 2011, he was shocked. “I was mortified such a hazard would be put on our streets,” said Sherlock.

Sherlock said he was frustrated but Metro at the time was having difficulty getting bus orders fulfilled with the specifications it originally requested. He didn’t pursue the matter further because “it was virtually impossible” with Daimler preparing to close its U.S bus operations, which it did in 2012. “It was clear they weren’t functioning well.”

The cost of that post redesign? Less than $300 per bus, according to Sherlock.

A Daimler official, responding to an earlier question, said in an email after this first story first appeared, "We are not aware of these statistics. As a matter of fact, this is the first time we ever heard about any complaints in regards to the visibility in our Orion 7 transit buses."

Metro officials say they have gone back and checked the records of the extensive review by their own officials, drivers and others. There is no mention at all of the visibility issue, they said.

Sherlock does not recall whether he discussed the sightline problem with Metro officials before the new Orion coaches arrived. But Sherlock told Crosscut he brought it up repeatedly with Metro officials afterward. He said he did not put his concerns into writing, because based on previous experience, "I thought a cooperative approach would be better than a confrontational approach."

Some drivers actually preferred the larger side mirror that Orion supplied originally, pulling them out a few inches and “bobbing and weaving” so they could peer into a 3-inch gap between it and the post to look for walkers. But Sherlock noted swaying in one's seat doesn’t eliminate the blind spot, it just moves it around. Sherlock produced a photo illustration that demonstrates how up to  19 pedestrians can be hidden in that blind spot. (The photo he used was taken by a New York City bus driver who had heard about his work on the blind spots. She told him she had almost hit a pedestrian herself because of the vision obstruction.)

Crosscut archive image.

After Metro bus versus pedestrian collisions began piling up in the months following the Orions’ arrival in 2011, the transit agency switched out the tall mirrors on those Orions for smaller models mounted beneath the operator’s sightline. But that still left the 8-inch obstruction caused by the pillar itself.

The post is a relatively new component. Buses built through the 1960s were called, “fishbowls,” because they had virtually no blind spots.

Other makes of buses have developed similar sightline problems in recent years, but to a lesser extent, and while there have been some design improvements, they are “not nearly sufficient,” said Sherlock. “The main manufacturers are interested in further improvements but they need customers willing to pay the insignificant amount extra per bus it takes to save more lives.”

Between 2001 and 2011, 462 pedestrians across the nation were killed by transit buses. Sherlock said. “Until we’re able to see (without an obstruction) we’ll continue to kill people. No amount of talking buses (with audio warnings to pedestrians) will solve that problem. We have to be able to see to drive.”

In 2014, New York City instituted a “Vision Zero” program to reduce the incidence of pedestrian deaths, in part, by lowering the speed limit in some intersections and making the failure to yield to a pedestrian or bike rider a criminal misdemeanor. ATU International has lobbied the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office and other government agencies to make bus redesign a component of Vision Zero and a national priority.

“Some were shocked at the scale of the problem,” Sherlock said. Since Vision Zero’s 2014 inception, however, several New York City bus drivers have been arrested for hitting walkers. “We need to engineer safety — instead they’re trying to get it by enforcement,” said Sherlock.

One company that supplies buses to Metro, New Flyer Industries, headquartered in Winnipeg, met with Sherlock last spring to learn about the design flaw and a possible redesign. Sherlock explained that the bulk of that pillar doesn’t serve any structural purpose. “The steel frame within the pillar is square and roughly an inch wide,” Sherlock said. “The big obstruction making the fiberglass cover very wide is to prevent fracture of the fiberglass front of the bus — called the front clip — during manufacture.” Large windshield openings on that part make it vulnerable to cracking prior to attachment to the frame, he said. Sherlock proposes a solution that calls for omitting those openings until assembly, and then routing them out.

In a written statement responding to a Crosscut inquiry, New Flyer indicated that changing the design of coaches could compromise safety. “Suggestions like removing pillars in buses (that also exist in… cars, trains, etc.) could introduce other issues such as structural strength and stability,” the statement reads.  “New Flyer continually reviews the design of its buses to make product and safety improvements and to address any changes in applicable laws. … Safety during the manufacturing phase and while they are in operation is paramount.”

Sherlock and ATU reps also presented their proposed design solution to the American Public Transportation Association, a transit trade group, in mid-July. “It looks like it has some promise but it will have to be fully evaluated,” said Bill Grizard, APTA acting assistant vice president public safety, operations and technical services.

In order for a coach redesign to become part of APTA’s procurement guidelines, it must be reviewed by several APTA committees and subjected to an engineering analysis, said Grizard.

While the APTA guidelines would be voluntary for manufacturers, the Federal Transit Administration has the authority to write mandatory safety standards for buses. “We’re pursuing both options,” said Sherlock.

Sherlock is about to make his plea for improved safety standards an international issue. In October, he will travel to Geneva, Switzerland to present his proposals regarding coach redesign to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency.

A safety expert at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte said that a design question could have played into any risks created by drivers hurrying.  “The more things that we have to process, the less we see,” said Martin Kane, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The concept is called, “useful field of view,” the visual area over which an individual can rapidly extract information. If you have too much to do — including keeping a tight schedule and repeatedly checking a substantial blind spot — and not enough time to do it, you’re not able to process everything in your field of vision, Kane said.

While the rise in pedestrian cases is clear, there also still may have been problems for drivers from the tighter schedules and reduced opportunities to find bathrooms.

Metro’s schedule changes grew out of efforts to save money and preserve as much service as possible. Faced with declining revenues during the Great Recession, Metro Transit decided to cut recovery times between trips for bus drivers. It was a move that attempted to combine fiscal responsibility and customer service. And it responded to suggestions from an audit that suggested schedule changes could save as much as $23 million per year. While Metro ultimately decided to go ahead with schedule tightening, it did so less aggressively than the study suggested, saving at most $12 million per year, officials said.

Even so, the changes had unintended consequences. Earlier reports for Crosscut have shown that Metro’s shorter layovers made it more difficult for bus drivers to find and use a restroom.

The truncated recovery times helped to fuel a six-month investigation by the state Department of Labor and Industries, which in November fined Metro $3,500 for failing to provide restroom facilities that drivers could find and use during their break times. Metro maintenance crews had to annually replace 60 urine-soaked driver seats for operators who weren’t able to get to a bathroom on time, and some were wearing adult diapers.

North Carolina's Kane said that driving takes a lot of concentration — to maintain the safety of the bus and its passengers, while navigating around pedestrians and traffic. He said, ”By shortening the amount of downtime for drivers, they’re having to operate at a higher level with fewer chances to decompress. Compounding the problem is the lack of opportunity to get to a bathroom facility. If they get behind schedule, they reduce the time they have available to them and it builds on itself.”

Driving with a full bladder can lead to unsafe driving, according to a 2011 study published in Neurourology and Urodynamics, “The Effect of Acute Increase in Urge to Void on Cognitive Function in Healthy Adults.” The paper concluded that having an extreme urge to urinate was equivalent or greater than the cognitive deterioration associated with other increased accident risks. The paper stated, “Tasks requiring continuous and complex attention such as driving could be negatively affected.” The magnitude of the cognitive decline associated with an extreme urge to urinate raises accident risk similarly to a blood alcohol level of .05 (the legal limit in Washington is .08) or staying awake for 24 hours straight, the study found.

Meanwhile, distracted walkers have become more of a problem for bus drivers in the last five years, said Hal Poor, a 22-year veteran operator and an Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 shop steward. “They’re busy Facebooking or texting or whatever they’re doing and they’re not watching for us when in reality we should be watching for them. But we don’t have the time to watch for them.” Indeed, walkers disregarding traffic signals or under alcohol’s influence solely caused eight of the 20 pedestrian-Metro bus collisions, according to DOT stats.

A few months ago, Metro began posting signs at bus stops featuring a photo of a woman in a crosswalk, looking down at her phone, encased in a circle with a slash through it. “Look up for safety!” the sign reads. And in May, Metro experimented with talking buses that warn walkers before the coach makes a turn. The results were mixed.

Crosscut archive image.
Harold Batsen, left, and Hal Poor Credit: Laura Kaufman

Metro driver Harold Batson, an elected safety committee representative for Metro's South Base, said he test drove one of those buses, which had a recorded voice cautioning pedestrians in English and Spanish, but was not impressed. “I think it’s a waste of money the way it’s currently set up,” said the 15-year veteran, suggesting that buses sound some sort of tone before the warning, to catch people’s attention. But shop steward Poor said that in order to prove effective, the volume of the warnings would have to be sufficiently loud that it likely would not be acceptable to residents living along bus routes, who would be forced to hear the announcements day and night.

Metro, for its part, acknowledges the negative feedback regarding the talking-bus experiment but vows to continue testing state-of-the-art warning devices.

Travis, the visually impaired pedestrian who suffered a head injury, sued King County in September 2013, for past and future medical expenses, lost wages, and future pain and suffering. In its response to the lawsuit, King County acknowledged the driver’s negligence caused the accident, but denies Travis’ injuries were the direct result of the operator’s actions.

Travis' attorney Richardson said, "There was all sorts of nice happy talk early on that, gee Metro doesn’t want to hit blind people and maybe she could come and speak to bus drivers about her experiences.” And, he said, “Andrea was absolutely excited to do that. She wants to be a part of the solution.”

Then during a mediation session, King County made what he called a “low-ball offer. Just a lack of attention to what they caused. They’re not taking responsibility and acting like a big faceless bureaucracy, wanting to toss out a few dimes and hope she goes away.” After Travis completed her medical treatment, King County requested she undergo a physical examination before re-evaluation of its settlement position, which she did in July. However, despite the mediator's efforts, the two sides failed to reach an agreement. The trial is set for December 14.

Thus far, Sunny has not sued King County. “Metro has indicated a very sincere apology for this and said they want to resolve it,” said her attorney, Ann Rosato, a partner with Peterson Wampold Rosato Luna Knopp.

Sunny, the grandmother who was severely injured by a Metro bus as it turned left and she desperately tried to run out of its way, continues to receive medical treatment paid for by Metro. Sunny was working and attending school prior to the accident. “But understandably she cannot,” said her husband, Sunny Kanjirappallil.

Attorney Rosato said both her client's legs were run over, and they were “severely deformed,” with a loss of muscle mass and tissue. Sunny has endured more than 10 surgeries since the collision. “It’s very questionable,” Rosato said, “whether she will walk proficiently again.”


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Laura Kaufman

Laura Kaufman, an award-winning journalist, is writing a book about First & Pike News.