Muni video vault: Bus crashes into SUV

February 11, 2008 7:54:09 PM PST
For more than a year, we've been investigating problems on city buses by concentrating on the 25 drivers who receive the most complaints from passengers. Now we have surveillance video of crashes of Muni buses.

This investigation began with a tip from inside Muni, from someone who handles complaints about bus drivers. He said passengers complain about the same drivers over and over again. Now you're going to see how many more Muni buses crash each year, compared to other cities with similar systems.

It happens on average about twice a day. A Muni bus gets into an accident somewhere in San Francisco.

"I went to pull into the driveway and I was stunned when the bus slammed into me," says Stephanie Schempp.

Schempp was in the Alamo Square neighborhood in April 2006 when a Muni bus, driving on the wrong side of a downhill street, crashed into her SUV as she was making a left turn.

The crash is captured by the bus' surveillance cameras. The impact throws a woman from the rear door all the way to the front of the bus where she hits her head on a post near the fare box. A 56-year-old woman gets launched from her seat, too, cutting her head.

Surveillance video: "Oh my God. Are you okay?"

Passengers scramble to help the women.

Surveillance video: "Oh my God, is that person okay in that car?"

This passenger is clearly concerned about Schempp, who is sitting stunned in the SUV, but John Spears, the bus driver, doesn't seem worried.

Surveillance video: "Is the driver okay there?"

Surveillance video: "Yeah, she's alright," says Spears.

"The bus driver refused to get out of the bus. Refused to help the injured people. Refused to make any kind of comment to me. And basically it was just chaos," says Schempp.

Eight minutes after he reports the crash to Muni, Spears gets a call on his cell phone. He explains why he was on the wrong side of the road. He was trying to overtake Schempp because she was driving too slowly.

Surveillance video: "Coming down the street, this woman was driving slow. I tried to go around her. Soon as I tried to go around her...she turns left into the driveway right there and I hit her," says Spears.

Spears tells police that Schempp didn't signal before making the turn. Schempp says she did.

"We do not encourage overtaking vehicles during the operation," says Kenneth McDonald, Muni's chief operating officer.

McDonald says either way, it's against Muni policy for a bus to overtake a moving vehicle.

"I would expect that a driver would stop and not go around a moving vehicle," says McDonald.

But McDonald won't say whether Spears was disciplined for his role in the accident.

It turns out, the driver who hit Schempp, John Spears, is part of an elite group. He's number 9 on the list of Muni's "most complained about" bus drivers, with 47 complaints in three years. Many of them for dangerous driving.

Complaints including these: that Spears "ran a red light almost hitting" a man and his wife, "blatantly ran a stop sign", and "was so impatient he almost caused an accident by cutting in front" of a motorist.

One woman wrote that she saw Spears "intentionally close the doors" on a man's hand "then start to move the bus." She "jumped out of her car, pounded on the doors and yelled at (him) to release the man's hand", but Spears just told her "he didn't put the man's hand in there."

Almost as troubling as that complaint, though, is Muni's apparent lack of response.

The woman called back nearly a month later to say she "wants a response from Muni." Another month passed, and she called again to say "no one has called her back." Finally, two and a half months after her initial complaint, Muni called and left a message on her voicemail.

Muni says it did mail and fax the woman a letter, which she claims she never received. McDonald insists that all complaints are investigated, and he says driver discipline is up under Muni boss Nat Ford, from 49 suspensions in 2005, to 88 in 2007.

"We take this very seriously. We take action when we find that there are, when we have completed our investigation and find that it warrants discipline," says McDonald.

We asked for an interview with Spears through the bus drivers' union, but got no response. The union president says a few problem drivers should not be allowed to ruin Muni's reputation.

"In every workplace you have bad apples, but what you guys are trying to do basically is portray this as a system out of control, and this is something that is widespread at Muni, which we feel that it is not," said Irwin Lum, president of the bus drivers' union, on January 29th.

But, statistics from the Federal Transit Administration show that Muni had more than twice the rate of motor bus injury accidents in 2006 than agencies of similar size in Denver, Portland and Orange County; and more than three times that of Dallas.

Although preliminary numbers for 2007 do show an improvement, Muni still ranks higher than Portland, Orange County and Dallas. But Denver was slightly higher.

The Muni bus crash totaled Stephanie Schempp's car, but the city refused to pay for the damage. So she hired a lawyer, and just two weeks ago -- almost two years after the accident -- Schempp finally got a $4,000 dollar settlement from the city.

"The lack of the city's responsibility, or their inability to take responsibility, has just been torture for me and all the people involved," says Schempp.

Schempp says Muni should do more to get rid of problem drivers and she's concerned that Spears and other members of "the top 25 bus drivers with the most complaints" are still on the job.

"It scares me that somebody who has the responsibility of the lives of all the people on the bus, and all the people that could get hit by a bus. Yeah, it scares me a lot that he's still out there and he's driving, says Schempp.

The I-Team also has a follow-up to our report 10 days ago about the horrible treatment a woman in a wheelchair received from a Muni bus driver. After our report, Florence Hough retained the law firm of Mark Geragos. They are working on a federal lawsuit over what happened.

The real losers in all this? Taxpayers, whose dollars will be used to pay any settlement, and it could be big.

To see raw video of the surveillance video and to read Dan Noyes' blog, click here.