High Accident Rate On S.F. Cable Cars

Wednesday, November 29, 2006
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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The I-Team has uncovered some surprising data on the safety of public transportation that might make you think twice before getting on a cable car.

The I-Team first investigated the safety of cable cars eight years ago and we've taken another look. It's the same story -- mile for mile, cable cars get in the most accidents and cause the most injuries of any form of public transportation in the country.

When it comes to San Francisco's sacred symbols, it's hard to top the cable car. They're tourist attractions in their own right, and for the 22,000 people who ride them each day, a fun way to see the city.

Miguel Duarte, cable car gripman: "You know a lot of people think they're in Disneyland, you know, that they're a rollercoaster."

But for the drivers, or "gripmen" like Miguel Duarte, it's not always a care-free ride. It can be hard to stop cable cars on the city's steep hills.

Miguel Duarte, cable car gripman: "We make it look easy, but it's not."

Rasuul Muhammad, cable car gripman: "These things don't stop on a dime. You have 19th century technology."

Nineteenth-century technology powered by these underground cables, and that uses wooden blocks to stop.

Miguel Duarte, cable car gripman: "As we go down hill, you'll be able to smell the wood burning. Smells good, that means we have brakes."

But gripman Daniel Kindstedt says those wooden brakes can't always stop a cable car quickly enough to avoid an accident.

Daniel Kindstedt, cable car gripman: "And as a pedestrian, you have the right to cross, you know, hey. And if you get hit, you can make a big lawsuit or whatever, but you're going to make that lawsuit with one leg, because the cable car just cut it off, you know what I'm saying?"

That's what happened in January of this year. Seventy-six-year-old Joyce Lam was heading home from church when she got hit by a cable car at a North Beach intersection. She died from her injuries a week later.

Wilson Lam, San Francisco: "It's left a huge hole in my life, and I'm thinking about that now as we approach the holidays."

Her son says the family is suing the city, not so much for the money, but to find out what went wrong on the cable car that killed his mother.

Wilson Lam, San Francisco: "That's what I want & to just find out what happened to my mom. None of us were there. We don't know what happened. We know our mom. We know how careful she was."

The picture hasn't changed much since we first investigated cable car safety eight years ago. Each week on average, cable cars slam into cars or pedestrians, stop short and injure passengers or crew, or break away out of control. In 1995, a runaway cable car crashed into another with 97 people on board. Canadian tourist Meyrick Jones lost his leg in the accident.

Meyrick Jones, cable car crash victim: "Only the locals who see the news know about all the accidents. The tourists who come in, they're like lambs, you know? You really ought to invest whatever time and money and effort is needed to make it safe, because if you don't, it turns into a dirty little secret."

Numbers from the U.S. Department of Transportation tell the story. They rate the safety of different forms of public transportation according to miles traveled, and cable cars are by far the worst.

Over the past four years, the collision injury rate for cable cars has been more than double that of Muni buses and three, four, even five times the rate of light rail and electric trolley buses in San Francisco.

Michael Kirchanski, Municipal Transportation Agency: "We believe the cable cars are very safe."

Michael Kirchanski is the safety director for the MTA -- the municipal transportation agency that oversees the cable cars.

Michael Kirchanski, Municipal Transportation Agency: "The kinds of incidents that cable cars have in general are very minor. They're usually fender bender-type collisions, passenger falls."

He says the MTA is doing its best with such old mechanical systems.

Michael Kirchanski, Municipal Transportation Agency: "Essentially, they're historic vehicles. They're in the national register. They're pretty much what they are and they're going to stay that way."

So when it comes to San Francisco's historic cable cars, the risk is just part of the ride. And it looks like it's going to stay that way.

If you look at the raw numbers, Muni busses seriously hurt more people than cable cars -- over seven times more last year.

But, bear in mind, those busses log 190 million passenger miles a year, compared to around nine million for cable cars.

We've posted all the numbers we received from the federal government for this story on the I-Team blog. Click here to see the raw data.

Have a tip on this or another investigation? E-mail the ABC7 I-Team or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.

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