4 strikes, you’re out: CTA bus bump sparks chain reaction of fear

Written By By NEIL STEINBERG Posted: 07/21/2014, 09:55am

It wasn’t much as far as accidents go.

No fireball. No fatalities. No screeching tires. In fact, one car wasn’t even moving, according to Bruce Hopkins, who was sitting in his blue Volvo wagon at the intersection of Cortland and Hermitage earlier in June, his 3-year-old son strapped in the back seat. They had just been to a class at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

A Chicago Transit Authority bus, trying to turn left, bumped into his car.

“The side of the bus is getting closer and closer, and I’m thinking, ‘Surely not,’ ’’ Hopkins said. “Surely they’re going to realize it’s too close. I’m tooting my horn and thinking: ‘Hang on. This isn’t going to happen.’ ”

As the alert reader will suspect, from the “surely not” and the “hang on,” that Hopkins is British, married to Natasha Loder, the Midwest correspondent for The Economist, someone I’ve shared a number of pleasant hours, trading tales of Rahm Emanuel. That’s how the story came to me, but not why I’m writing about it. I’m writing about it because of what happened after the bus hit Hopkins’ car.

The driver of the bus got out and accused Hopkins of driving into her.

Rather than being indignant, Hopkins really pegs himself as a fair-minded Brit by sympathizing with the dissembling driver.

“What really struck me,” he said, ignoring the bus, “is why would a bus driver feel, laying aside the possibility that they genuinely believed that a car stopped at a four-way stop sign was moving, why would a driver not feel able to say, ‘Sorry, mate.’ The level of fear somebody must feel that they can’t admit a simple mistake. People are generally decent. Why would somebody make something up about something so trivial?”

Why indeed. He went online, where all our answers dwell, and found bus “drivers, after a third accident, they’re fired.”

Actually, like much online, that isn’t true.

It’s four. CTA drivers get four accidents before they’re sacked, to use the U.K. term.

“If you have four minor accidents within two years, you can be discharged,” CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said. “If you were to have a major accident, you can be dismissed for up to one serious accident.”

Being British, Hopkins was not so much aghast at the minor damage or inconvenience, as the fear in the driver’s face.

“It seems terrible,” he said. “I don’t think a little scrape where nobody was hurt merits such a thing, or the fear of such a thing, particularly in a country such as America where losing your job can be disastrous for them and their family. Their health care comes with their job. People with chronic illness are going to die.”

See, that’s why we Americans are so loath to get an overseas perspective, to read magazines like The Economist (really, you should, it’s like having an extra brain). Because then we have to gaze into the mirror, full on, at just how screwed up we are. Get in a fender bender and your children may die.

“Why is the driver put in a position where they feel it’s necessary to not come clean about it?” Hopkins persisted. “What is CTA policy? Do they have instructions to deny liability? It wouldn’t surprise me.”

I asked Chase if they tell drivers to deny liability. Perhaps inevitably, she denied it.

“Our operators are definitely not instructed to deny anything,” Chase said. “There’s no truth to that.” She also pointed out that buses are silly with cameras, so assessing what happened is not much of an issue.

“If need be, there are disciplinary procedures,” she said.

Hopkins is concerned, but not for himself.

“In the global scheme of things, if the worst thing to happen in summer is the day your Volvo gets a bit of a scrape, the American dream still has a decent pulse from where you’re standing,” he said. “It’s troubling that someone would feel it necessary to not be able to fess up to simple misjudgment where nobody was hurt. Probably happens 100 times a day, every day. It should be no big deal, and it is ridiculous to be that upset about it. That’s what insurance companies are for. There shouldn’t be these severe consequences.

“I don’t believe the driver is a bad person, or anything would just make that up …” he continued. “I kinda feel someone’s got to be incentivized by fear of consequences. The system shouldn’t be arranged that way. America should have a socialized health care system, so [if] somebody loses their job over something trivial, their dependent with a chronic health condition doesn’t die.”

But that isn’t the American way. Speaking of which, the CTA reviewed the bus’s video and this week told Hopkins what he already knew: The accident was their fault.

Email: nsteinberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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