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Port Authority crashes up by a third

| Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

Crashes involving Port Authority of Allegheny County buses and T rail cars have increased by more than 35 percent in the past five years, while the number of more serious and fatal incidents has dropped.

At least eight people were injured in three bus crashes since last month, including an elderly Bellevue man whose arm was run over July 19 as he ran alongside a bus Downtown, and three passengers suffered neck, head and back injuries last week when the bus driver slammed on the brakes to avoid a car on the North Shore.

There were 145 incidents involving Port Authority vehicles in fiscal 2006, which ended June 30, up from 108 in 2002. Transit officials, however, say they believe many of the incidents were not related to crashes and instead involved slips and falls.

"We have to count it all and that number doesn't say how many times we're at fault," said authority spokesman Bob Grove. "But nobody here is really feeling there's been any jump in the number of accidents, even though the raw number is up."

There is some evidence to back Port Authority's case, but the agency, which serves 230,000 riders a day in Allegheny County and parts of surrounding counties, was unable to separate the slip-and-fall accidents from the crashes. Port Authority's data combine the two types of incidents.

Authority Operations Manager Steve Banta said he does not believe the number of vehicle crashes has increased much in recent years.

"I don't see anything alarming in the numbers," he said. "This is not an easy town to drive a car through, much less a 40-foot bus."

Other statistics support the authority's claim:

= Serious wrecks dropped from six in 2003 to one in 2006. These involved multiple injuries, fatalities or property damage exceeding $25,000.

= Fatalities fell from five in 2003 to zero in 2006.

= The number of claims filed against the authority plunged from 2,847 in 2000 to 1,825 in 2006. About 95 percent were injuries not related to crashes, Grove said.

= Restitution paid to the authority by other drivers faulted in wrecks involving buses or T cars rose, from $370,242 in fiscal 2002 to $538,000 in fiscal 2006.

Rarely is a Port Authority driver cited or charged following a crash, and the agency does not keep track of how many are, he said.

The authority declined to reveal how many drivers it has reprimanded in connection with crashes, citing an internal employee policy that prohibits the release of such information.

The driver of the Port Authority bus that ran over Theodore Wilson's arm July 19 on Liberty Avenue will not be cited. An authority police report shows Wilson, 79, was running alongside the moving bus, pounding it with his fists, when he fell. Wilson was critically injured, but since has been released from the hospital.

Driver Reginald Jones, who was not charged, has not returned to work. Grove would not say why.

Another driver who slammed on his brakes to avoid a car in front of him Aug. 23 near Heinz Field was not cited. Three people were injured when the driver Dale Lesonick hit the brakes on North Shore Drive.

Riders blame the number of wrecks on poor driving, by bus operators and other motorists.

"I have seen some aggressive behavior by drivers toward pedestrians," Jon Hiles, of South Fayette, said Wednesday at the authority's Downtown Service Center. "It's a big bus, and I'm a little person. I understand the drivers have to make schedules. And I think it's a two-way street. If people would walk when they're supposed to, the bus drivers wouldn't be so aggressive."

"It's rush hour, and everybody wants to get home. They don't want to wait for buses," said Allentown's Sam McMahon, who was waiting for a Knoxville bus yesterday at Wood Street and Sixth Avenue.

"The cars pull up past the white line at intersections, and it's hard for buses to make the turns," he said. "That's the biggest problem. And some people don't have the patience to wait for a bus ahead of them, so they try to squeeze past the bus, and then -- crash."

Other riders say they've not had concerns about bus drivers.

"I think they're very safe," said Rhonda Weadon, of the South Side, who was waiting for a bus Tuesday near Penn Avenue and Ninth Street, Downtown. "I've been riding for years, and I'm pretty sure the bus drivers know what they're doing."

Additional Information:

Recent wrecks

Sept. 18, 2005 : Six people were injured when a 28X bus en route to Pittsburgh International Airport hit a concrete barrier and flipped on its side as it entered the Parkway West.

Sept. 20, 2005 : Five people were injured when a van crashed into the back of an 11D Perrysville bus on the North Side.

Dec. 6, 2005 : Two people were injured when a 36A Banksville bus struck a woman at the intersection of the Boulevard of the Allies and Stanwix Street. A pedestrian and a passenger suffered cuts.

March 31 : Three people were injured when a 61B Braddock-Swissvale bus was hit from behind by a 61A East Pittsburgh-Wilkinsburg bus in Squirrel Hill.

July 19 : A Downtown bus ran over a Bellevue man's arm. The man had been running on the sidewalk alongside the bus on Liberty Avenue when he fell.

Aug. 17 : Four people were injured when a 500 Highland Park-Bellevue bus collided with a truck in Uptown.

Aug. 23 : Three people were injured when the driver of a 16A Ohio River Boulevard bus slammed on the brakes to avoid a car in front of the bus along North Shore Drive, North Side.

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