Iowa buses to honk more to curb accidents

/ Source: The Associated Press

Honk if you love pedestrians.

In response to several instances in which pedestrians were struck by buses — including one on Monday — Des Moines this week began temporarily requiring bus drivers to honk every time they make a turn.

And since every accident happened when the buses were turning left, drivers now follow routes that allow only right-hand turns in the city's downtown.

Seven people have been struck by buses in the past two years, including two this month, although none was fatal. While the number may seem small compared with the city's population of about 200,000, Des Moines transit officials are in the process of settling a lawsuit of more than $2 million involving a pedestrian who was struck in 2007. Several other similar lawsuits are pending.

City officials have already increased driver training, erected signs warning motorists to be aware of their surroundings, and prohibited drivers from carrying cell phones.

'What else can we do?'
"Look at all the work we've done," said Brad Miller, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit system's general manager. "What else can we do?"

A lot more, if you ask William Holmes, 68, of West Des Moines, who was hit by a bus Oct. 13, 2008, after leaving work.

Holmes, who says he broke his wrist and suffered permanent nerve damage when he was clipped by the bus' bumper as he crossed a street with the light, said the transit system needs to train its drivers better.

"Anything that can be done to avoid hitting pedestrians in downtown Des Moines should be done," Holmes said. "I don't know why they're having that problem. There are seven of us, and that's seven too many."

He sued the transit agency Monday seeking an unspecified amount.

The new turning rules were instituted because left turns tend to be more risky as drivers focus on oncoming traffic and look for a safe gap to make their move. The size of the bus and how it turns — pivoting on its rear wheels — makes it difficult for a pedestrian to see immediately that it's turning, Miller said.

The bus looks like "it's still going straight, and there is less reaction time," he said.

A national study by the Transit Cooperative Research Program indicates 69 percent of bus accidents involving turns happen while the vehicle is turning left.

Critics weigh in
Some residents wonder if the new rules are necessary.

"I don't understand how people are getting hit," said rider Ben Nizzi. "I mean, who can't see a bus?"

And then there's all that honking. The city eventually plans to retrofit its 155 buses with a device that will sound when turning. Until then, drivers will have to lay on the horn themselves.

Honking carries a hefty fine in some places, including New York City, and Miller acknowledges it may be annoying. But he says it will serve its purpose by getting people's attention.

Some residents wonder if the cost is worth it and whether the noisemaking will be effective in the long run.

"Probably at some point in time you're just going to say, 'That's the bus honking.' We all assimilate, get used to things around us, so if this honking is going on constantly, we'll probably get used to it," said resident Terry Wells.

Greg Hull, director of security and operations support for the Washington-based American Public Transportation Association, said transit systems overall are seeing a drop in accidents despite increases in ridership and miles traveled.

He said he was puzzled by Des Moines' problems, but acknowledged the difficulty of left turns.

Drivers were cited as responsible for four of the accidents, Miller said.

In the most recent, in which Melissa Dunagan, 61, of West Des Moines, was struck, the driver was cited for failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Dunagan said she had contacted an attorney but otherwise declined to comment.

Toughening hiring practices
Since 2007, the transit system has toughened its hiring practices, Miller said. New drivers can't have a drunken driving conviction in the past five years, can't have had multiple accidents in the past three years, can't be designated as a habitual violator by the Iowa Department of Transportation, or have had a suspended license in the past three years.

This week, the transit commission also approved a tougher drug testing policy, which calls for terminating a driver who tests positive on a random drug test. Previously, a driver testing positive would undergo treatment with 18 months of follow-up tests.

Angela Connolly, head of the transit commission, said more will be done if the problems continue.

"We will look at anything and everything," she said. "It's a nightmare ... and we're going to do everything in our power to make it safe."