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Driving blind 

Did a driver or a long-ignored bus-design flaw kill Vince Miller?

click to enlarge The No. 7 Springs Transit but at Chelton Road and Astrozon Boulevard, where Leonard Vince Miller was hit and killed. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • The No. 7 Springs Transit but at Chelton Road and Astrozon Boulevard, where Leonard Vince Miller was hit and killed.

Springs Transit was a lifeline for Leonard "Vince" Miller.

Disabled with a bad knee and vision problems, the 56-year-old Colorado Springs resident depended on the bus to take him across town to see his daughter and granddaughters several times every week. He also used the bus to take his granddaughters to Manitou Springs, where they enjoyed playing at the penny arcade.

A Springs Transit bus also killed Miller.

On Aug. 22 last year, he was struck by the bus from which he had just disembarked on his way to see his family in southeastern Colorado Springs. His 11-year-old granddaughter watched as he was knocked to the ground, hitting his head on the pavement. Hours later at Memorial Hospital, Miller died of the head injury.

In an instant, the accident changed the lives of Miller's daughters, Stephanie Quintana and Julie Ham. Quintana, who arrived at the scene just after Miller was struck, has had a particularly hard time coping with the loss of her father, a retired sheet-metal worker who had lived in Colorado Springs most of his life.

"The family is still in shock and dealing with it every day," Ham said. "It's never out of our heads."

The accident also changed the life of the man who drove the bus, Harry Mack Wallace. Wallace, 39, has since lost his job, and he faces up to a year in jail if convicted on a careless-driving charge.

But the big question, according to the union that represents Springs Transit drivers, is whether the accident will change how the city-owned transit operation deals with a safety problem which, union officials claim, went ignored for years -- until Miller was killed.

Miller's death, union officials contend, was caused not by carelessness on the part of Wallace but by a design flaw found in much of Springs Transit's bus fleet: a tall fare box, mounted in the front of the bus, that blocks much of the driver's view.

The nearly 3 1/2-foot-tall, 10-inch-wide box, in which passengers deposit their fares, creates such a major blind spot for drivers that it constitutes an "unnecessary and unjustifiable" risk, according to an accident investigator with the Colorado Springs Police Department.

It's a risk that Springs Transit has known about for years without addressing it, union officials maintain.

"We have these buses on the street, and it's fairly dangerous," said Dan Francis, president of Local 19 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Presented with evidence of the alleged danger posed by the fare boxes, Springs Transit's safety review board backed the union's view by ruling that Wallace wasn't responsible for the accident. Under the union's labor agreement with the transit company, that means Wallace can't be disciplined.

Springs Transit, however, rejected the board's findings and proceeded to fire Wallace.

And while company officials decided to investigate the fare-box issue, they say they're unconvinced that it was to blame for the accident.

click to enlarge Vince Miller
  • Vince Miller

Didn't see him

Late in the afternoon of Aug. 22, Wallace was driving his regular route, the No. 7, from the downtown terminal through the Hillside neighborhood and then southeast. The bus had been almost full of people going home from school and work, but most had gotten off by the time he approached Astrozon Boulevard, heading east on Chelton Road. Two more runs, and Wallace was off for the weekend.

"I was having a good day," he recalled.

At Astrozon, Wallace stopped at a red light, waiting to turn right. When the light turned green, he waited for a woman in a wheelchair to cross the street. He had just helped her get off the bus. At the same time, Wallace noticed Miller, who had also just stepped off the bus, standing on the street corner to his immediate right. According to Wallace, Miller was standing back from the curb and didn't look like he was planning to cross. "He was just standing."

Exactly what happened next is in dispute. But as Wallace recounts it, once the woman in the wheelchair had cleared, he looked left to check for vehicles, and then back to the right, before starting to make his right turn. As Wallace was turning, Miller suddenly appeared to the left of the fare box, which is positioned in front of, and to the right of, the driver. Wallace says Miller must have entered the blind spot behind the fare box while Wallace was looking left.

"I didn't see him until he came from my blind spot to the other side of the fare box," Wallace said. Once he saw Miller, "I stopped on the button."

But it was too late. Though the bus was moving slowly -- Wallace estimates the speed at less than 5 mph -- Miller got bumped and fell to the ground.

In a nearby parking lot, Miller's daughter Stephanie and his granddaughter were approaching the intersection to meet him. He had called just minutes earlier from his cell phone, letting them know he was on his way. The 11-year-old girl, who was running ahead of her mother, witnessed the accident. Stephanie arrived to see her father lying on the ground and passersby rushing to his assistance.

Wallace stayed on the bus, using the radio to communicate with emergency response crews. According to 911 transcripts, people assisting Miller said he was still conscious after the impact. An ambulance took Miller to Memorial Hospital, where he died less than two hours later. He had broken several ribs and his neck, but he died from internal bleeding that resulted from hitting his head on the pavement, according to the autopsy. The coroner also reported that Miller had a blood alcohol content of 0.12 percent.

Police took Wallace in for blood alcohol tests, which came out negative. He was placed on paid leave from Springs Transit, and after further investigation, police cited him with careless driving resulting in death -- a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. The charge is still pending in court.

Investigating the accident

Springs Transit manager Larry Tenenholz says that to his knowledge, the accident was the first-ever fatality for the company since it was purchased by the City of Colorado Springs in 1972. Managed by a private contractor, Professional Transit Management of Cincinnati, the city-owned bus service operates 69 standard buses and 27 smaller coaches. For the last two years, Springs Transit vehicles have been involved in one accident for every 62,000 miles driven. The company's vehicles logged 2.3 million miles in 2002.

Springs Transit drivers undergo extensive safety training and continuous safety evaluations. Wallace, who began driving for the company in 1998, had near-perfect scores on his evaluations.

But Wallace also had marks on his driving record. In February of 2001, he accepted a deferred sentence for driving while his ability was impaired by alcohol, and completed a 25-week alcohol education course. The incident involved a private vehicle. In addition, Wallace was twice ticketed for speeding, in September of 2001 and July of 2003. His record also includes a citation for unsafe backing.

When Wallace's driving record became public, Springs Transit manager Tenenholz, who is an employee of Professional Transit Management, said Wallace had never informed the company about his driving while impaired conviction. Wallace, however, says he did.

Springs Transit proceeded with its standard routine established for instances when drivers are involved in accidents. A safety review board, consisting of two company representatives, two union representatives and a "neutral" person -- currently a retired state trooper -- investigates the accident to determine whether the driver could have prevented it.

click to enlarge Springs Transit manager Larry Tenenholz - BRUCE ELLIOTT

If the board finds that a driver could have avoided an accident by taking reasonable measures, it is deemed preventable and the driver is usually disciplined -- which can range from a short suspension and extra safety training to dismissal. Under the labor agreement between the union and Springs Transit, a non-preventable accident will not result in discipline.

Following its first inquiry into Wallace's case, the safety board found Wallace could have prevented the accident. But the board reversed itself on appeal, ruling on Nov. 10 that he could not.

The board's reasoning in either decision is unclear, as its members are barred from discussing their investigations publicly. But according to the union's president, Francis, what changed the board's mind was additional evidence presented about the role of the fare box. Francis referred to the retired state trooper on the board, Robert Cranford, as the "swing vote" that changed the outcome, after Cranford himself sat behind the wheel of a bus and saw the blind spot created by the fare box.

Fare boxes are standard equipment on buses. But what causes concern, according to union officials, is when a specific, tall fare box is installed on a specific model of bus, the Gillig Phantom. In this case, the Odyssey model fare box manufactured by GFI Genfare stands 41 inches tall, or nearly 3 1/2 feet. This configuration, present in about 30 of Springs Transit's buses, creates a major blind spot in the right half of the windshield -- especially for shorter drivers like Wallace, who is 5-feet-8-inches.

On other city-owned buses, the driver's seat is usually on a raised platform, which reduces the blind spot. GFI Genfare also makes the Odyssey in shorter heights, but most Springs Transit coaches are outfitted with the 41-inch model.

The only way to get a real sense of the blind spot the fare box creates is by sitting behind the wheel of the bus (as pictured on next page). Dan Smoker, a major-accident investigator with Colorado Springs police, did so during follow-up investigations of Wallace's accident.

"I was amazed to discover the large blind spot created by the fair [sic] box," Smoker wrote in a letter to Francis, the union president. "I sat in the driver's seat and was alarmed when I could not see two of my partners standing about 3 feet forward and to the right of the bus. ... In my opinion, the blind spot created by the fair [sic] box presents an unnecessary and unjustifiable risk for the safe operation of the bus."

Smoker did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Never took action

Union officials say Springs Transit has long known about the dangerous configuration. In fact, exactly 12 years before Wallace's accident, on Aug. 22, 1991, Springs Transit driver Carolyn Chapman hit a pedestrian while driving a bus at Peterson Air Force Base. While the pedestrian survived, the accident was ruled preventable, resulting in a week's suspension for Chapman.

Now a union safety steward, Chapman blamed the accident on the blind spot created by the fare box. She says she proceeded to pester Springs Transit safety managers for years about the tall fare boxes, but the company never took any action.

"I've been fighting this battle for 12 years," Chapman said in an interview. Following her accident, "I really believed they would do something, and they didn't."

Wallace says he had long worried in the back of his mind about the fare-box blind spot. Though he says company safety trainers never specifically addressed the fare boxes, drivers are taught to compensate for blind spots in general by moving around in their seats.

That's easier than it sounds, Wallace says. "You have to keep going up and back and moving around."

Company officials, meanwhile, acknowledge that the fare box is an obstruction but say it's perfectly possible to see around it.

"I'm not denying that there's a blind spot," Tenenholz said in an interview. But drivers are trained to deal with all blind spots through a procedure known as "rock and roll" -- meaning that the driver has to rock his or her body forward to look, before the bus can roll.

click to enlarge Dan Francis, president of Local 19 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, at the corner of Chelton Road and Astrozon Boulevard, where the fatal accident occurred. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Dan Francis, president of Local 19 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, at the corner of Chelton Road and Astrozon Boulevard, where the fatal accident occurred.

"We train our drivers very well," Tenenholz said. "They know about this."

And while Chapman maintains she tried for years to make Springs Transit do something about the fare boxes, Tenenholz said he had only one conversation with her about the matter. He asked her to provide him with more information, but she never did, he maintains. "I never heard another word."

Tenenholz also says he recently researched company records and found no mention of any concern regarding the fare boxes. Moreover, when the company first purchased its nearly 3 1/2-foot-tall boxes, operators were trained in using them before they were installed -- and no one complained about any visibility problems, he says.

Tenenholz also points out that Wallace didn't mention the fare box in statements he made to police immediately after the accident.

The way Tenenholz interprets the police reports, Wallace actually began turning right while he was still looking left to check for traffic. In other words, he was already moving when he looked back to the right and suddenly spotted Miller. Bus drivers are not supposed to start moving until they're certain the area around the bus is clear.

Nonetheless, following the accident, Springs Transit decided to look into the fare-box issue. The company asked officials from the State Patrol and the Colorado Springs Police Department to examine its coaches, but the officials found the blind spots did not violate any federal, state or local safety regulations.

Despite those findings, the company asked a mechanic to investigate whether the boxes could be moved. The mechanic was unable to come up with a practical alternate location for the boxes, Tenenholz said.

Tenenholz says he's also conducted research but has found no evidence indicating that the nearly 3 1/2-foot-tall fare box, which is in widespread use throughout North America, has been raised as a safety concern anywhere else.

"These fare boxes are all over the United States -- tens of thousands of them," Tenenholz said. "So far, I've come up with a big, fat zero."

City of Colorado Springs officials, meanwhile, say they are leaving the matter in the hands of the bus management company, Professional Transit Management. Under its contract with the city, the company is solely responsible for any liability that may arise from accidents.

Still, Sherre Ritenour, the city's transit manager, said the city would want the fare-box issue to be addressed should it turn out to pose a hazard.

"If there is any legitimacy to that claim, which is obviously undetermined at this point, we certainly would take whatever action we needed to do to ensure the safety of the public," Ritenour said. "I know [Professional Transit Management] is researching the issue ... and to my knowledge [has] not uncovered anything of substance regarding the union's claim."

Field of view

The Independent, however, did find evidence that tall fare boxes have been identified as a safety concern elsewhere.

A 1997 ergonomic study of bus-driver workstations, conducted by the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute and sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, recommended that workstations include "low-profile" fare boxes no taller than 3 feet, or 36 inches.

"The fare box shall be located in a position so that obstruction of the operator's view is minimized," the report concludes. "The top of the fare box shall not exceed 91.4 cm (36 in.) from the floor."

click to enlarge A 41-inch bus fare box, as seen from the drivers seat of a Springs Transit bus. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • A 41-inch bus fare box, as seen from the drivers seat of a Springs Transit bus.

About 10 years ago in Seattle, King County Metro Transit decided to partially recess, or sink, its 41-inch fare boxes into the floors of its buses, in response to drivers' concerns. A local union representative had done research showing that the blind spot could reduce a driver's field of view by as much as 27 degrees. For some of the shorter drivers, the box could conceal a 6-foot-tall person standing 2 feet away from the bus, or a 5-foot-tall person standing more than 14 feet away, according to the research.

Union officials suspected the fare boxes had been a contributing factor in several accidents, though a spokeswoman for King County Metro said it was only implicated in one accident, which was nonfatal.

Still, "It was just obvious to our safety officers that the visibility was a problem," said the spokeswoman, Linda Thielke.

Mechanics were able to recess the boxes only about 2.5 inches into the floor, reducing but not eliminating the blind spot.

In Portland, Ore., union officials also tried to persuade the TriMet transit system to do something about the fare boxes. TriMet's manager, Harry Saporta, acknowledged the concern in a letter to a bus driver.

"The concern you expressed is not unique to Tri-Met," Saporta wrote. "It is an industry-wide issue."

However, Saporta also wrote that he believed drivers could see around the blind spot by "moving your torso forward or to the side to better view the right front side."

Mike Russell, a TriMet safety official in Portland, says the boxes were implicated in at least three accidents there, none of which was fatal. However, the company decided to take no action, in part because the problem was solving itself. The company, Russell noted, was already in the process of replacing most of its coaches with newer "low-floor" buses, where the operator sits on an elevated platform, significantly reducing the blind spot.

An ongoing issue

At the time when TriMet grappled with the issue in Oregon, Saporta was also chairman of a safety committee of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a group representing transit companies throughout the United States.

When initially contacted for this story, an association spokeswoman indicated the association knew about of the fare-box concern. "It is an ongoing issue, apparently," said the spokeswoman, Virginia Miller.

In a subsequent interview, however, an APTA official denied knowing anything about it. "We're not aware of this issue being a concern within the industry," said Greg Hull, the association's director of safety and security programs.

Saporta has since become director of the Office of Safety and Security at the Federal Transit Administration. When contacted, he referred questions to an FTA spokeswoman, who said the agency knew about of the fare-box concerns but had no jurisdiction over the matter. The agency considers it a "design issue," not a safety issue, said the spokeswoman, Linda Gehrke.

Moreover, though the federal agency spends billions of dollars each year subsidizing local transit agencies, it has no enforcement powers when it comes to safety, according to Gehrke. FTA subsidies account for roughly half of Springs Transit's $10-million annual revenues.

Neither the FTA nor other federal agencies have information indicating how much of a safety problem tall fare boxes might pose, if any, on a national scale. Though the federal government collects data on bus accidents, the data contains few details on accident causes.

The National Transportation Safety Board has pinpointed the lack of detailed safety reporting as a problem. In 1998, the board completed an investigation that found it was "nearly impossible" to analyze the causes of bus accidents on a national level, due to the lackluster reporting.

click to enlarge The drivers-seat view is obstructed by the fare box on the right. - COLORADO SPRINGS POLICE DEPARTMENT

Kim Green, vice president for sales and marketing at GFI Genfare, said the company was also unaware of any problems concerning its nearly 3 1/2-foot-tall fare boxes. He noted, however, that the company, which is the biggest supplier of fare boxes in the United States, also makes a 36-inch-tall version of the Odyssey fare box, as well as a 31-inch version. Customers who are concerned about 41-inch boxes can order those, he said.

In Colorado Springs, union officials say replacing 41-inch boxes with shorter ones would be a simple way to eliminate an unnecessary hazard.

Tenenholz, however, estimates that would cost the already cash-strapped Springs Transit at least $80,000. The cost, he says, can't be justified in the absence of strong and convincing evidence that the tall boxes create a hazard.

"Before I expense $80,000, I want to make sure that I should expense $80,000," Tenenholz said.

Still haunted

Meanwhile, Wallace is out of work. On Nov. 17, a week after the Safety Review Board exonerated him, Wallace learned Springs Transit was firing him anyway.

According to Francis, the decision violates the labor agreement between the union and the company, which specifies that the Safety Review Board's finding on appeal is "final and binding."

That may well be the case, Tenenholz says. But the company decided to set aside the board's finding anyway, he explains, because the board failed to follow guidelines in making its ruling. According to Tenenholz, the board's guidelines specifically state that all accidents caused by blind spots shall, by definition, be ruled preventable. Union officials, on the other hand, say the company is misinterpreting the guidelines.

The union has filed a grievance, and Francis says he's "confident" Wallace will eventually get his job back.

Wallace says he's still haunted by the accident.

"I never thought, in a million years, that I'd be taking the life of someone," he said, tears welling up in his eyes.

Still, he would like to return to his old job. He says he misses greeting familiar faces on the bus every day, and assisting passengers who need help.

"I like dealing with people," Wallace said. "All the jobs I had were always dealing with people."

Wallace says he believes Springs Transit officials are trying to pin the blame on him to dodge responsibility for having ignored concerns about the fare boxes. They could have done something about the boxes years ago, "but they didn't choose to," he said.

Wallace, who hasn't spoken to Miller's family, added, "I want to make sure that the Miller family has my condolences. I'm deeply sorry."

Miller's family, meanwhile, is cool to the idea of Wallace getting his job back.

The family members, who have filed a claim for damages against Springs Transit, would make only limited comments on the matter, on the advice of their attorney, Erhard Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons is skeptical toward the fare-box theory, saying it was never mentioned in weeks immediately following the accident.

"We're just a little bit curious that this comes up," he said.

Police reports clearly suggest Wallace was responsible for hitting Miller, Fitzsimmons says.

Union officials, meanwhile, say that whether or not Wallace is ultimately found guilty, they would like to prevent the tall fare boxes from causing yet another accident.

"When I heard Harry had that accident, I just felt so sad that I didn't accomplish my goal to have this fixed 12 years ago," said Chapman, the union safety steward. If nothing is done, she added, "it's going to happen again."

  • Did a driver or a long-ignored bus-design flaw kill Vince Miller?

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