Metro focuses on safety after $39M pay out of claims in last 5 years

39 claims involving driver, pedestrian, and passenger injuries or death have been settled against King County Metro since 2012, with $38 million paid out. (KOMO Photo)

SEATTLE -- Crashes involving King County Metro buses can come with a high cost. Not just in injuries or lives, but in tens of millions of dollars for taxpayers.

Since 2012, 39 claims involving passenger, pedestrian or driver injuries and deaths have been settled against King County Metro.

In January 2014, a pedestrian was critically injured by a bus in Burien. In February 2015, a bus hit a motorcyclist in the U-District, causing serious injuries, and in December of 2015 an elderly woman was dragged and killed by a bus in Northgate.

These cases are among the 39 claims involving driver, pedestrian and passenger injuries or death that have been settled against Metro since 2012, with $38 million paid out

"We're working strenuously as an agency to eliminate all accidents," Grantley Martelly, Director of Public Safety at King County Metro says.

Martelly joined the agency in October as the managing director of safety and security.

"Metro has a good safety culture, but every culture can improve," Martelly tells KOMO News.

Through a public records request, KOMO News obtained a safety systems review completed last fall to help Metro create a new safety plan.

Among the findings:

  • "Reactive rather than proactive safety"
  • "Lacking the ability to conduct productive data mining that would help to identify emerging safety hazards"
  • "Lack of integration between the safety, service planning, strategy and budget functions of the organization"
  • "Safety concerns raised by employees do not appear to be proactively addressed"

"This is one of our areas of improvement," Martelly says. "If we know a driver has a concern, we will address it."

One concern noted during KOMO's research is the "Orion" bus model, the model involved in a fatal collision at the Northgate Transit Facility in 2015.

There are currently 199 Orion buses operating in King County out of 1,535 active coaches.

Transit experts around the country have raised questions about a larger window pillar, or the "A" pillar, which can create a potential blind spot - particularly when a bus turns left at a crosswalk.

King County allowed KOMO on board one of the Orion models, along with a new "Flier" model.

There is an apparent difference in the size of the window pillar.

The driver behind the wheel in Northgate says he didn't see 94-year-old Jacqueline Morrison in a marked crosswalk when he turned left. Morrison was fatally struck by the bus.

Attorney Chris Davis represented Morrison's family in their claim against Metro.

"All bus models have somewhat of a blind spot, but the Orion is larger," Davis says.

"I think because of a lot of money invested in those models," says Davis, "I think we're talking about the county not wanting to do something that would force them to remove those models from our streets."

When questioned during deposition, the Northgate driver says he believed this feature was unsafe even before the collision, and that other operators had reported it as unsafe.

When asked if he believed there was any other reason for the collision, the Northgate driver responded "no other reason."

"Every vehicle has an 'A' pillar, and every 'A' pillar in every vehicle presents challenges," Martelly says. "We train our operators to operate the vehicle safely to make sure they know where they're going. They can see where they're going whether they have to move in their seat, move their body, slow down, square turns."

The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents 190,000 workers in North America, has repeatedly called on transit agencies to address the larger window pillars - and blind spot - which they say are more common in newer bus models.

ATU claims 60% of pedestrian fatalities from 2001 to 2011 were caused by turning buses.

Of the 39 claims against King County Metro KOMO researched, more than half involved turning buses, although not all involved Orion models.

KOMO also looked at similar transit agencies along the West Coast to see how many are seeing large settlements involving collisions, or on-board injuries.

Between 2012 and 2017, TriMet in Oregon recorded four settlements, costing over $100,000.

San Francisco matched Metro with 39, despite recording 100 million more riders boarding a year than Metro.

Taxpayers in King County ultimately paid four million dollars more than San Francisco for the same number of collisions.

"This area is unique, some of the roads are small, there’s lots of turns, there’s many, many pedestrians on the street, all hours of the day and the night, we have steep hills, we have rain and the rain can turn to sleet and it turn to snow and then the sun can come back out," Martelly says.

Martelly also says Metro is working on multiple fronts to improve safety, including changes to how operators are trained or re-trained, how safety information is distributed to operators, and even a near miss reporting system to track potential problems.

So far, no pedestrian incidents have been recorded by Metro in both February and April of 2017.

While the county has no plans to remove the Orion models from service, they did modify the mirrors in 2013 to lessen the drivers blind spot. They also say conversations are ongoing with manufacturers at the national level about improving engineering on the "A" pillar.

KOMO News attempted to contact Orion, but discovered the company shut down four years ago. Its assets were sold to other companies.

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