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Transit agency getting safer?

| Friday, Dec. 8, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

Charles Rohe remembers walking to grab his car from an Oakland garage. Then, the details get fuzzy.

A Port Authority of Allegheny County bus traveling 17 mph struck the University of Pittsburgh student about 7:05 p.m. Wednesday, when he stepped into the Fifth Avenue bus lane, said authority spokesman Bob Grove.

Rohe told police he didn't see the 71D coming.

The collision cracked the bus' windshield and sent Rohe, 23, of Baldwin Borough, to UPMC Presbyterian, Oakland, with broken ribs and damage to his nose and left eye.

"(The injuries) are painful, but they're not life-threatening," said Rohe's father, John, 53, who drove through the night from his Hamilton, N.J., home after speaking with a relative who works for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "She said he was in an accident with a bus. And he lost."

Rohe, who might be discharged today, is one of a growing number of people involved in Port Authority accidents, a category including everything from minor falls to headline-grabbing collisions. The transit agency has reported 51 accidents -- more than half of them slips and falls -- from July through October, up from 44 the same period last year.

In July, an elderly man suffered a severe arm injury after being pulled under a Port Authority bus he was trying to board Downtown. Two months later, a Hampton woman getting off a bus in Ross hurt her legs when the bus struck her. In October, a Port Authority bus collided with a school bus whose driver suffered a heart attack.

Port Authority, however, says its nearly 1,100-bus fleet is getting safer. Total incidents involving Port Authority vehicles increased from fiscal 2002 to 2006 but, Grove stresses, serious wrecks have dropped, the number of claims filed against the agency is down and restitution paid to the agency by other drivers is up.

"I hear a lot of complaints from people riding the bus, (but) people are always going to complain about traffic, gas costs and fare costs, what times buses show up or don't show up," bus rider Susan Brown, 39, of Beechview, said recently. "As a rule of thumb, (Port Authority bus drivers) handle emergency situations. They have quick reaction times."

It's tough to measure Port Authority's safety against other transit agencies.

In 2005, the Federal Transit Administration said Pittsburgh reported 28 "nonmajor" collisions and 25 injuries -- about half the number of such collisions and less than one-quarter the injuries as Cleveland, which logged 70 million fewer passenger miles. But Portland, Ore., whose transit system is slightly less-traveled than Port Authority's, reported only nine nonmajor collisions in 2005.

Three years earlier, Pittsburgh reported 76 total collisions -- the same as St. Louis, which traveled less than half Pittsburgh's 288.6 million passenger miles. The same year, Cleveland reported 64 total collisions and Portland had 15.

"There are no two transit systems, no two transit agencies that are the same," said Greg Hull, of the nonprofit American Public Transportation Association. "You really can't compare the experience of one city, one city's transit system to another."

Grove has said Port Authority relies, in part, on federal officials to monitor and judge its safety record. Those federal officials, however, said it's difficult to draw black-and-white conclusions because safety data is self-reported and transit systems differ greatly.

Grove said some numbers illustrate an improving safety trend. Fatalities, for example, are down. During the past 20 fiscal years, Port Authority reported 35 fatalities, down from 59 fatalities in the preceding 20-year span.

Claims against the authority dropped -- from 2,847 in 2000 to 1,825 in 2006, Grove said. In fiscal 2005 and 2006, the agency paid $932,843 in personal injury settlements and nearly $2 million in total payouts. In fiscal 1997, payouts -- which include injury settlements, minor claims and property damages -- totaled $3.1 million.

"I think the Port Authority is like any other large organization. There are probably some drivers who are more attentive than others," said Downtown-based attorney John P. Gismondi, who has represented people involved in Port Authority accidents.

"I think, overall, it's a safe service," said Bridgeville attorney Steven M. Toprani. "But that doesn't mean we can't make it safer."

Additional Information:

Details

Reported fatalities

Reported fatalities, Port Authority of Allegheny County, by fiscal year:

1987: 2

1988: 6

1989-91: 0

1992: 4

1993: 0

1994: 5

1995: 1

1996: 2

1997: 1

1998: 1

1999: 1

2000: 1

2001: 0

2002: 2

2003: 7

2004: 1

2005: 1

2006: 0

Source: Port Authority of Allegheny County

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