Crashes Heighten Busway Concerns

Times Staff Writers

Seventeen people were injured -- one seriously -- in two collisions between cars and Orange Line buses Wednesday, heightening concerns about the safety of the new transitway designed to speed trips across the San Fernando Valley.

Within minutes of the second accident, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials issued an order for all Orange Line buses to slow to 10 mph when approaching green lights.

Other officials called for additional safety measures on the 14-mile route, including railroad-style crossing gates. But extra safety measures could affect one of the line's main selling points: a faster commute.

Orange Line critics and nearby residents had been predicting collisions even before the busway's opening Saturday, saying the crossings were confusing and dangerous for motorists.

The busway is the only transit system of its kind in the region, designed to operate like light rail but using specially designed buses instead of train cars on its own roadway across the south San Fernando Valley. But the $324-million Orange Line does not employ railroad crossing-style arms or lights to prevent motorists from crossing that roadway while a bus approaches, relying instead on traffic lights and warning signs.

Both accidents Wednesday apparently involved motorists running red lights.

MTA officials said they will go back to the drawing board regarding safety measures.

"Everything is on the table," said Richard Hunt, the MTA's general manager for the San Fernando Valley area, at the scene of Wednesday's second accident.

The crashes took place on the fifth day of operation of the busway, which has been attracting more than 10,000 boardings on weekdays.

During a test run last week, a similar collision occurred but caused no injuries.

The more serious collision Wednesday occurred shortly after 2 p.m., at Woodman Avenue and Oxnard Street in Valley Glen. A 78-year-old woman driving south on Woodman -- who, witnesses told police, was talking on a cellphone -- ran a red light and crashed into the midsection of a bus, spun around and struck the bus again.

Fourteen aboard the bus were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, mostly back and neck complaints, said Brian Humphrey, spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

The car's driver was in fair condition at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. Her condition had originally been listed as critical.

MTA officials said the accident briefly disrupted service while buses were rerouted on city streets, putting the schedule behind by eight to 10 minutes for several hours.

The first crash occurred about three hours earlier, at the crossing at Corbin Avenue, which also intersects Topham Street nearby at an acute angle. Two people -- the motorist and a fare inspector on the bus -- were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, police said.

Witnesses told police that the motorist, a 65-year-old woman, was making a right turn through a red light, an action that is no longer allowed at many of the busway's intersections. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, the woman and the bus driver both told officers that they had a green light.

The Orange Line's east-west route from the Red Line subway station in North Hollywood to Warner Center in Woodland Hills intersects with streets at 36 points. The full run has been taking about 40 minutes, with the buses making 13 stops.

Even before Wednesday's collisions, so many motorists had complained about the crossings that a safety task force had been convened by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor, who is also chairman of the MTA, took that step shortly after a bus he was riding last week on a demonstration run narrowly escaped being in an accident. The task force, made up of officials from the MTA, local law enforcement agencies and city traffic engineers, met for the first time Wednesday, just hours before the accidents occurred, but did not reach any decisions.

Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, chairwoman of the city's Transportation Committee, called an emergency meeting for today with the MTA, city traffic engineers, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department.

"We want to assure the public that we're doing everything we can about safety," Greuel said.

At the time of the Valley Glen collision, authorities said, the bus was traveling between 25 and 30 mph. The speed was in accordance with MTA policy in place until Wednesday afternoon, requiring Orange Line drivers to "cover their brakes" with their foot while passing through intersections. The posted speed limit at the intersection is 35 mph for buses and cars.

The decision to immediately require the drivers to slow to 10 mph at intersections was made while MTA officials were en route to that accident. Shortly after the first accident, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a busway advocate, had called for the speed reduction.

"It's not the bus that's creating the problem; it's the motorists who are running red lights," said Councilman Dennis Zine. "If not the bus, they would've hit something else."

Some safety experts warn that collisions between buses and other vehicles could be far more dangerous to riders than those between vehicles and trains.

"When you have a rail collision, it is very rare that passengers get injured," said Tom Rubin, a former MTA official who has worked as a consultant to busway opponents. "With buses, you don't have the same weight ratio. A bus is more likely to get knocked around, and it's more likely to overturn."

Safety at public transit crossings has been a chronic problem in the Los Angeles area -- one some officials attribute to many drivers' lack of familiarity with public transportation.

"It's a learning curve. Once the public gets adjusted, I think we'll be fine, but people need to realize this busway exists," said LAPD Capt. Ronald Marbrey of the Valley Traffic Division.

Councilman Jack Weiss said that "the types of negligent driving" have also plagued the light rail Blue Line between Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles.

"It's not the fault of the line," Weiss said. "L.A. drivers have had a hard time understanding that they need to share the road with mass transit."

Even so, Weiss said that who was at fault was less important than preventing future accidents.

"If the Orange Line is basically a train on rubber wheels, maybe the warning systems to drivers should be similar as well," he said.

Near the site of the Valley Glen accident, some neighbors said the occurrence of a crash involving the busway had been just a matter of time. Friends Steve Pepper and Lisa Freedman had in recent days discussed the likelihood of accidents. Freedman had predicted a crash there within a month. Pepper had said it would occur within 10 days.

"It's very unnerving," Freedman said of the intersection. "It's so confusing for your eyes to see lights all over the place. It's really poorly designed."

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Times staff writer Megan Garvey contributed to this report.

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