Last week’s fatal bus-pedestrian crash in Seattle’s Uptown neighborhood happened because the victim fell into the rear tires of a departing RapidRide D bus, for reasons still undetermined, King County Metro Transit says.
Although investigations are just beginning, police and transit officials describe a hazard common to city streets: Some people will stand, walk or run less than arm’s length from machines 60 feet long that weigh 42,000 pounds.
A man in his 50s, who was not publicly identified, was struck in the roadway Thursday at westbound Mercer Street, while the bus was departing a stop next to Queen Anne Avenue North, according to police spokesperson Detective Valerie Carson. Officers did not cite or arrest the driver, she said.
At this busy intersection a constant stream of commuters, tent dwellers, restaurant patrons and sports fans maneuver along narrow sidewalks. The bus shelter and benches sit within 3 feet of a crowded four-lane road.
“It’s a sad situation,” said Aaron Ervin, chatting at a bus stop bench Monday. “It makes me more aware of my surroundings. It makes me stop and pause, and look around, and not take things for granted.”
Just an hour before the crash, Ervin boarded the D Line to go clothes shopping in Ballard, he said. He’s seen people at the corner get hit by bus mirrors, or walk into road lanes, or impaired by drugs; but Ervin also called safety “a two-pronged thing” where transit operators need more patience. He suggested moving shelters and benches farther back, to open more sidewalk space.
Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer emphasized nearly all the 64,000 trips a week by Metro operators are accident free.
“From our perspective, we would say this is a tragic incident. Thankfully, collisions like this are few and rare,” he said.
This April, a man was fatally injured when he fell under the front wheels in Burien, just after stepping off a Route 120 bus. And in April 2020, a man trying to flag a bus in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood fell beneath it and died.
Metro also reported three people were injured in collisions “waiting or leaving” a bus stop in each of 2019 and 2020, five in 2021, and two in the first seven months of 2022, according to the National Transit Database.
Collision detectives and Metro safety supervisors will conduct parallel investigations into Thursday’s tragedy, aided by bus-mounted cameras. Typically, the police take months while the transit inquiry lasts for weeks. According to a police news release, the bus driver “was unaware he had run over a man standing next to the back of the bus.”
Kenneth Price, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, which represents Metro operators and maintenance crews, recalls stopping many times to avoid sideswiping people, and an incident when someone running behind him fell to the ground.
“Unfortunately, this happens daily and are many near misses,” Price said. “People fall on the sidewalk, trip as they reach to slap the side of the bus pulling away, and many times falling.”
Drivers are trained to look left, then at the right mirror, then left again when leaving the bus stop zone, he said. At that point, they’re committed to the road ahead.
With a 60-foot articulated bus, side view mirrors might not even provide views of people on the sidewalk during the moments a driver is steering left while the back half of the bus is still parallel to the curb.
“This is a very intractable problem,” said Brian Sherlock, national safety specialist for the ATU.
“Absolutely do not run close enough to a bus where you can fall and conceivably end up under the wheels,” he advised. “I’m going to be four or five feet away at least.”
One engineering solution would be a right rear wheel camera image displayed on the dashboard, solving the problem of people looking tiny in a mirror, Sherlock said. Bus-mounted skirts and bars are available to sweep people from rolling tires, but they create other kinds of safety challenges, he said.
In recent years, transit agencies and suppliers have focused more on a different hazard: People walking are obscured by blind spots in the vehicle. A 94-year-old woman died in 2015 when a left-turning bus struck her in a crosswalk near Northgate Transit Center; and in 2017 a South Lake Union commuter died when a right-turning transit operator didn’t see him enter the intersection.
Nationally, 102 people died in crashes involving transit buses last year, the most in at least three decades, according to preliminary data by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Yet those are a mere fraction of the nearly 43,000 traffic deaths in the U.S. last year.