Five people killed. More than 1,000 injured. A cost to Chicago taxpayers of about $16 million.
That’s some of the toll exacted by crashes involving CTA buses the past two years, according to interviews and records examined by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Altogether, CTA buses were involved in more than 500 crashes in 2015 and 2016, with injuries reported by about 550 bus riders, 250 bus drivers, 200 other drivers, 55 pedestrians and 20 bicyclists.
Beyond the human toll, there’s a financial cost. The $16 million included settlements, judgments and other legal expenses. In all, more than 380 lawsuits were filed against the CTA in 2015 and 2016 as a result of bus crashes, though suits “filed in 2015 could include accidents from 2014, as there is a one-year statute of limitations and would also include re-filings,” according to the public transit agency.
As part of one pending wrongful-death lawsuit that’s likely to result in a hefty payout by the CTA, the agency recently admitted fault in a 2015 accident in which, according to records and interviews, a bus blew a red light downtown, striking and killing a pedestrian, Aimee Coath, a 51-year-old Flossmoor mother.
If accidents involve deaths, a hospital trip, property damage of at least $25,000 or even a tow, the CTA is required to report that to the Federal Transit Administration, a federal agency that regulates public buses and trains.
Among the bus-related injuries the CTA reported to the federal agency:
• On Jan. 21, 2015, a bus heading east on 79th at Bishop hit a 12-year-old boy who’d darted into the street between two parked cars while “chasing a dog,” records show. “The right front corner of the bus made contact with the pedestrian who then landed on a parked vehicle,” the report said.
• Days later, a vehicle “traveling at a high rate of speed” went out of control at 82nd and King Drive “and made contact with the bus’ left front bumper,” according to an accident summary. “As a result, 7 CTA passengers and the operator were transported to various hospitals.”
• In September 2015, a bus turning at Archer and Damen struck a pedestrian in a motorized wheelchair.
• Last July, a bus was “attempting to make a left turn” at Halsted and Waveland when it “made contact with” four pedestrians, sending all of them to hospitals with “multiple injuries” and also resulting in a trip to the hospital for the driver.
Bicycles were involved in 14 of the CTA bus crashes last year and six in 2015, including one in which a CTA bus at Sheridan and Montrose “rear-ended a standing bicyclist.” In another instance, a cyclist “fell from the sidewalk and into the back of the moving bus” in the 3200 block of West Division, according to the CTA.
CTA records don’t provide much detail about the severity or types of injuries. Nor do they mention whether the reported injuries turned out to be overstated, perhaps in hope of getting a financial settlement.
“There have been instances where individuals have claimed injury when they were, in fact, not hurt or not hurt to the extent that they are claiming or as a result of an accident,” CTA spokesman Steve Mayberry says. “Beyond that, determinations as to the nature of any injuries would be made by medical professionals on a case-by-case basis and ultimately the courts.”
Though bus drivers are often among those injured, sometimes they go to a hospital only out of precaution, the Amalgamated Transit Union 241’s Carlos J. Acevedo says.
Most of the accidents were routine — for instance, a rear-end collision or a vehicle clipping a stopped bus while trying to illegally turn in front of it.
In a few instances, though, buses were involved in crashes with a school bus, a snowplow, an ambulance, a squad car.
In March 2016, a pregnant CTA bus driver was sent “into labor” and taken to a hospital after her bus was hit by another vehicle while riders were getting on at Chicago and Laramie, records show. She gave birth to a healthy boy, according to a CTA spokesman.
All five fatalities in the past two years occurred in 2015, including one in which a “pedestrian running on the side of the bus lost his balance and fell to the ground, making contact with the rear wheels of the bus” at North and Luna, records show.
The CTA says “it’s sometimes difficult to determine” who was at fault. “There is no doubt, however, that many collisions involve other vehicles striking CTA buses, oftentimes when buses are stopped at designated bus stops. For example, over the course of the two years at issue, CTA buses were standing about 178 times.”
Acevedo, whose union represents the CTA’s 4,000-plus full- and part-time bus drivers, says, “Everybody’s in a rush type of mentality in this city. It takes motorists and people walking with headphones — all of us — committed to make it safe.”
Through records and interviews, the Sun-Times found that, in the two-year period examined:
• Most of the CTA bus accidents happened on the South Side.
• More than 40 of them resulted in the hospitalization of five or more people.
• Just over 40 bus drivers were fired “in whole or in part” because of a collision during that two-year period.
The driver of the bus that killed Coath remains with the CTA, though is no longer driving a route, officials say. They won’t answer questions about him but say, “CTA has admitted fault in the matter.”
Following that accident, CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. “implemented multiple changes,” including increasing the number of days of training for drivers, as well as “line-ride inspections in which managers ride along on in-service routes to ensure proper adherence to procedures/policies,” according to a spokesman.
One concern is that many veteran drivers have the seniority to pick sleepier routes, leaving busy Loop routes, with bigger buses, often staffed with less-experienced drivers, as was the case in the Coath accident.
Acevedo says his union has pushed for financial “incentives” to encourage veteran drivers to take the wheel of the longer, accordion-style “articulated” buses and to take the more-difficult routes. Those are among the safety-related issues being discussed in current contract negotiations.
Acevedo says the union also wants to ease up on broad “split shifts” that he says can cause driver fatigue and “unrealistic” timetables that drivers “stress out” to complete.
Carter says of crashes: “My goal is zero.”
Still, with more than 500 crashes in two years, CTA officials say the agency “has a very strong safety record.
“There are more than 6 million bus trips each year, traveling 50 million miles. The 510 collisions over 2015 and 2016 happened over the course of about 100 million miles of bus service, representing roughly one collision per [200,000] miles traveled. That’s the equivalent of one collision in 71 cross-country trips across the United States.”
CTA officials say the agency is “in line with our peers nationally,” pointing to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the transit agency for the Philadelphia area. Through the first 11 months of 2016, SEPTA reported 235 collisions, compared to the CTA’s 251. SEPTA had about 39 million miles of “bus revenue service” for the year, compared to the CTA’s approximately 52 million miles.
The main transit agency in the Los Angeles area logged more miles than the CTA but had far fewer bus collisions, records show — about 100 over the same period.