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Cable cars cost San Francisco plenty in accident payouts

| Saturday, April 13, 2013, 7:30 p.m.
Tourists from Argentina ride a cable car up Hyde Street in San Francisco on Jan. 21, 2011. With fares at $6 for a one-way trip, the iconic vehicles are more tourist attraction than transit system.

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco remains the only place on the planet with a true, manually operated cable-car system serving the public, and the clanging, hill-conquering public transport is a top tourist draw. But the cable cars also stand out for the inordinate number of accidents and the millions of dollars annually the city pays out to settle lawsuits for broken bones, severed feet and bad bruises caused when 19th-century technology runs headlong into 21st-century city traffic.

Cable cars average about an accident a month and routinely rank among the most accident-prone mass transportation modes in the country per vehicle mile traveled annually, according to the Department of Transportation. Over the last 10 years, city officials have reported 126 accidents injuring 151 people.

After the latest serious accident — when seven people were injured after a cable car slammed to an unexpected stop after hitting a small bolt in the track — The Associated Press obtained through a public records request a listing of cable car-related legal settlements over the last three years.

Those figures show the city paying nearly $8 million to settle about four dozen legal claims.

The city has paid on average $12 million annually to settle all claims connected to its mass transportation system that in addition to cable cars consists of electric street cars and buses, which travel many more miles and carry many more passengers.

City officials acknowledge that the open air cable cars, which ply only eight miles of track, produce a disproportionate amount of accident-related costs. But they say the cars are a much beloved and valuable part of the city's life.

“The iconic cable cars of San Francisco are a National Historic Landmark and we work every day to make them safer,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said, adding, “While accidents and injuries are down from just a few years ago, we are always working to improve the system as a whole.”

Federal transportation figures show 19 injuries and 16 accidents last year, the second highest amount reported in the last 10 years. There were 36 accidents reported in 2004.

The city has been settling lawsuits almost since the cable cars began operation in 1893. One woman won a 1970 jury verdict of $50,000 after she claimed that a minor accident on a cable car she was riding turned her into a nymphomaniac.

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