Citizens for Improved Transit
On September 6th Channel 10/11 did an "investigative report" about StarTran and its drivers. The report left its viewers with the impression that:
This report was slanted, misleading and incomplete in many respects. It brought up old information which is no longer relevant regarding StarTran drivers on the streets today. CFIT feels that it is necessary to criticize this reporting and set the record straight with this post.
All too often some reporters file a story which is designed to sensationalize a subject and the story ends up with an extreme bias. Good reporting involves careful research, marshaling facts carefully and presenting a balanced account. Channel 10/11 viewers are entitled to stories which are balanced and complete. The 10/11 viewer with the impression that StarTran does not monitor its drivers regarding safety as well as follow up when a StarTran driver is involved in an accident.
Last year a study was released which surveyed accident statistics nationwide. The statistics show that you are 10 times safer riding public transit than when you are driving or riding in an automobile. The reasons for these results include:
When I read the report on the national study, I decided to check out the StarTran statistics I went to the Highway Safety Office of the State of Nebraska and requested a report on all accidents involving StarTran buses during the past 10 years. This report indicated that no StarTran bus operators or StarTran bus riders had been killed during the entire 10 year period. The report divides injuries into classes, Class A: Serious and Disabling, Class B: Minor Requiring Some Treatment but Not Disabling and so forth. Over the 10 years documented there were few Class A injuries to StarTran riders. Most Class A injuries involved an auto driver hitting a bus. Most Class A injuries to riders resulted from being thrown about. Based upon the report I received from the State, StarTran has an exemplary safety record.
Most StarTran drivers drive an 8 hour shift five days per week. Some may drive more than a forty hour week because of overtime requirements. Mike Weston, Operations Superintendent for StarTran reports that hte 100 StarTran bus drivers spent 156,000 hours on the road in 2017. During this time period there were only 35 preventable accidents systemwide. My own personal experience driving railroad crew for a contractor for Burlington Northern Santa Fe and UnionPacific for a number of years plus driving a courtesy van for Downtown Holliday In and delivering prescriptions for a local pharmacy convinced me that commercial drivers were always at risk and had to adopt good "defensive driving" skills in order to remain accident-free. Not only do you have to drive your own vehicle safely, but you have to anticipate the errors of automobile drivers and bicyclists who make unsafe moves. The low number of 34 accidents indicates that the StarTran drivers are driving defensively. I ride StarTran on a daily basis and Almost every trip a StarTran driver avoids a bad situation by anticipating moves of other vehicles. This may involve a panic stop at times. If StarTran drivers as a whole were unsafe, I would expect to see many more than 34 accidents a year.
A preventable accident is one where the bus driver could have taken some action to avoid the accident. It should be understood that a preventable accident in the StarTran statistics does not mean a collision with another vehicle. Lumped in with the preventable accident statistics are incidents where a bus driver damages one of the long-hanging mirrors by hitting an object. Other examples involve a driver misjudging space and scraping the side of a bus on a parked car or a bridge railing.
Following each accident reported to StarTran, a supervisor is dispatched to the accident scene with a digital camera to take photos. The supervisor works with the investigating police officer at the accident to list witnesses to the accident. All StarTran buses are equipped with a series of cameras. One shoots the scene in front of the driver, another along the right side of the bus and others show the interior of the bus. At the accident scene the supervisor pulls the "tapes" from the video cameras and preserves them for the accident hearing. A board composed of StarTran management and StarTran drivers meets regularly to review accidents. All information is presented and the driver may choose to testify. Based upon the evidence presented an accident will be determined to be either 'preventable' or 'unavoidable'. An example of an unavoidable accident would be where a bus has to stop in traffic and an inattentive driver rear ends the stopped bus. If the accident is unavoidable it results in no further action at that time against the driver. If the accident is classified as preventable the driver may be suspended or placed on probation and allowed to continue driving only with the understanding that further tickets or accidents may involve further action including termination of employment.
The channel 10/11 interviewer questioned Mike Weston about drivers on probation. Weston was aware that starTran cannot disclose 'personnel issues' and declined further comment. According to law, 'personnel actions' are privileged. Also city officials know that any comment they make beyond "no comment" could be used in subsequent lawsuits against StarTran and the city of Lincoln. To the uneducated the "no comment" could be interpreted as a cover-up regarding action taken for driver infractions. however, regarding disciplinary matters no comment may be possible because a preventable-unavoidable determination has not been made yet. Also disclosure that driver was suspended or on probation may unfairly stigmatize that driver.
The 10/11 team did surface a number of tickets given to StarTran drivers. However, the fact that a driver receives a ticket may not mean the driver is unsafe and should not be driving. An incident I am personally aware of involves those wretched bicycle lanes in the middles of 11th and 14th street. SterTran buses have to cross over these lanes on a daily basis. Particularly bad is the 14th street bike lane running past the State office Building. Because there is no through travel lane from Q street to P east of the bike lane, route 55 Shuttle has to cross the lane west of the State Office Building to pick up and discharge passengers, then cross the bike land again to go north on 14th, having to cross it again to pick up and discharge passengers at 14th and O, then cross it again north of O to make a turn to the west on Q street to continue its route towards the Haymarket. A driver was pulling out of the stop at the State Office Building and across the bike lane to proceed not the. A bicycle was coming nether behind the bus which the driver could not see and the bike ran into the bus. The driver receiver a traffic ticket for "changing lanes without safety". The StarTran driver was technically guilty of the offense, and the accident was deemed a preventable accident. The driver was not taken out of service as a result, nor, in my opinion should have been. Although the bicyclist had the right of way, he should have noticed the bus pulling across the bike lane and stopped or slowed down. The other traffic tickets discovered by 10/11 may have been similar to the one I am aware of and not have warranted taking a driver out of service.
The 10/11 report made mention of an accident at 11th and M where a StarTran bus struck a pedestrian causing injury. The driver was suspended and eventually terminated. 10/11 said that this driver had received two other tickets earlier in the year, but no mention was made as to the offenses involved. Not every traffic ticket requires suspension or termination. The disiporoition is best left to someone in possession of all the facts and circumstances involving the traffic citation.
As a make-weight to its case channel 10/ll reported that in 2004 a StarTran driver received a ticket for a misdemeanor assault and was allowed to continue driving. The station did not mention that the assault occurred while the driver was not driving a StarTran bus and was on his own time when the incident happened. Is an incident that happened fourteen years ago still relevant today? Although city employees may be prevented from commenting on certain aspects of the 10/11 report, as a private citizen I am free to comment and feel the need to do so to reassure the public that we don't have a bunch of reckless StarTran drivers. As elsewhere in the US you are 10 times less likely to become a fatality or be seriously injured riding public transit than driving your car.
- RICHARD L. SCHMELING
President, Citizens for Improved Transit