I-Team

Board approves Muni accident settlements

Tuesday, February 03, 2009
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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San Francisco's Municipal Transit System, Muni, took another hit Tuesday as the board of directors approved big settlements for people killed or injured by cable cars or buses. The I-Team has been investigating the safety of the Muni system for more than 10 years.

The I-Team has reported over the years how cable cars are the most dangerous form of public transportation, not just in the Bay area, but in the entire country. At Tuesday's hearing, two of the three major settlements involved cable car accidents.

Members of the Municipal Transportation Agency Board approved $1.8 million to settle a dozen claims involving collisions with cars, a slip and fall, and doors shutting on a passenger. The list also includes three cases in which people were badly injured or killed in accidents.

MTA executive director Nat Ford declined to be interviewed Tuesday and referred questions to his spokesman, Judson True.

"Any accident is one accident too many and we are doing everything we can at the MTA to continue to improve safety," said True.

The board paid out $500,000 to the family of Joyce Lam. The 76-year-old was heading home from church in January of 2006 when a cable car hit her in a North Beach crosswalk. She died from her injuries a week later.

"It's been a huge blow," said the victim's son Wilson Lam who feels the cable cars are a daily, painful reminder for his family of what happened. "My parents actually forbade us when we were kids from riding those things, and I'd see them down the block my whole life, and we weren't supposed to ride them because they were like so dangerous."

And the safety record of the cable cars hasn't changed much over the years. It's the same 19th century technology powered by underground cables using wooden blocks to stop.

"As we're going downhill, you'll be able to smell the wood burning -- smells good -- that means we have brakes," said cable car gripman Miguel Duarte in an interview with the I-Team back in November of 2006.

The cable car gripmen we interviewed for our last investigation admitted those wooden brakes can't always stop a cable car quickly enough to avoid an accident, even in a crosswalk.

"Yeah, 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?" said cable car gripman Daniel Kinstedt.

Tuesday, the MTA board also paid out $575,000 to a woman injured in 2004 when a cable car came to a sudden and violent stop, and another $575,000 to a pedestrian run over and killed by a Muni bus in the Tenderloin in 2007.

"It's always a challenge operating in a dense environment like San Francisco, but we are working to improve safety," said True.

The MTA pays out more than $10 million a year on average for injuries, wrongful death and property damage.

For the latest data the I-Team has received from the city and links to our other cable car investigations, read the I-Team Blog.

If you know about a story you think the I-Team should cover, send us an e-mail here.

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