Des Moines hit by a bus problem

Honk if you love pedestrians.

In response to several instances in which pedestrians were struck by buses -- including one this week -- Des Moines is temporarily requiring bus drivers to honk every time they make a turn.

And since every accident happened when the buses were turning left, drivers now follow routes that involve only right turns in the city's downtown.

Seven people have been struck by buses in the last two years, including two in July, although none died. The number may seem small compared with the city's population of about 200,000, but Des Moines transit officials are in the process of settling a lawsuit of more than $2 million involving a pedestrian who was struck in 2007. Several similar lawsuits are pending.

City officials have increased driver training, erected signs warning motorists to be aware of their surroundings and prohibited drivers from carrying cellphones.

"Look at all the work we've done," said Brad Miller, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority's general manager. "What else can we do?"

A lot more, if you ask William Holmes, 68, of West Des Moines, who was hit by a bus in October after leaving work.

Holmes, who says he broke his wrist and suffered permanent nerve damage when he was clipped by the bus' bumper as he crossed a street with the light, said the transit system needs to train its drivers better.

"Anything that can be done to avoid hitting pedestrians in downtown Des Moines should be done," Holmes said. "I don't know why they're having that problem. There are seven of us, and that's seven too many."

He is suing the transit agency, seeking an unspecified amount.

The new turning rules were instituted because left turns tend to be more risky as drivers focus on oncoming traffic and look for a safe gap to make their move. The size of the bus and how it turns -- pivoting on its rear wheels -- make it difficult for a pedestrian to see immediately that it's turning, Miller said.

The bus looks like "it's still going straight, and there is less reaction time," he said.

Some residents wonder if the new rules are necessary.

"I don't understand how people are getting hit," said rider Ben Nizzi. "I mean, who can't see a bus?"

Then there's all that honking. The city eventually plans to retrofit its 155 buses with a device that will sound when the vehicles turn. Until then, drivers will have to lay on the horn themselves.

Honking carries a hefty fine in some places, including New York City, and Miller acknowledges that it may be annoying. But he says it will serve its purpose by getting people's attention.

Tiffany Schmit, 28, doesn't think it will work. She had the light and was halfway across the street in April 2008 when she saw the bus begin to turn -- and it was too late to get out of the way. But she suffered only minor scrapes.

"I don't see how honking will do any good other than to tell pedestrians to run out of the way," Schmit said. "It seems as if [the transit system] is saying it's pedestrians' fault and they honk to make pedestrians get out of the way because it's their road. Is it going to make someone more visible? No."

Greg Hull, director of security and operations support for the Washington-based American Public Transportation Assn., said transit systems overall are seeing a drop in accidents despite increases in ridership and miles traveled.

He said he was puzzled by Des Moines' problems, but acknowledged the difficulty of left turns.

Drivers were cited as responsible for four of the accidents, Miller said.

In the most recent, in which Melissa Dunagan, 61, of West Des Moines was struck, the driver was cited for failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Dunagan said she had contacted an attorney but otherwise declined to comment.

Since 2007, the transit system has toughened its hiring practices, Miller said.

No driver can be hired who has had a drunk-driving conviction in the preceding five years, has had multiple accidents in the last three years, is designated a habitual violator by the Iowa Department of Transportation, or has had a suspended license in the last three years.

The transit commission also approved a tougher drug testing policy, which calls for terminating a driver who tests positive on a random drug test. Previously, a driver testing positive would undergo treatment with 18 months of follow-up tests.

Angela Connolly, head of the transit commission, said more will be done if the problems continue.

"We will look at anything and everything," she said. "It's a nightmare . . . and we're going to do everything in our power to make it safe."


Crumb writes for the Associated Press.

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