Amazon worker John Ahn was fatally struck when he started to cross Westlake Avenue at Blanchard Street the evening of Oct. 12, 2017. The bus driver failed to see him, while turning right from Blanchard onto southbound Westlake.
King County Metro Transit has apologized and made a multimillion-dollar payment to the family of John Ahn, a 43-year-old Amazon employee who was killed after work last year by a turning bus on Westlake Avenue.
Ahn had just finished dinner with co-workers the rainy night of Oct. 12, 2017, when he started to cross Westlake Avenue at Blanchard Street. A driver on Sound Transit Route 554 failed to see him, while turning right from Blanchard onto southbound Westlake.
Sound Transit initially told news reporters a pedestrian had walked into the side of the bus. However, the bus-mounted video, examined by investigators from both Metro and Seattle police, showed the right-front corner of the bus knocked him down, and the vehicle struck him twice afterward. Metro operates several Sound Transit routes in King County.
King County issued Ahn’s wife, who is raising their young son, a $4.5 million check in July, and agreed to a total $7.7 million, according to a record released by the county’s risk-management office. The settlement was reached through mediation involving Ahn’s wife’s attorneys, Nelson Lee and Bethany Lee of Seattle, without a lawsuit.
A Metro safety officer ruled the crash “preventable” last fall. The transit operator, who previously earned a three-decade safe driving record, was fired Aug. 31 as a result of the incident, an agency spokesman said. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 has filed a grievance to appeal on the driver’s behalf, said local President Ken Price.
Prosecutors declined in July to file a felony charge against the 68-year-old driver. Seattle police forwarded it this month to the city attorney’s office for a possible misdemeanor charge.
Metro General Manager Rob Gannon, who apologized in May, said in an email this month to The Seattle Times: “No measure of my regret comes close to soothing the pain of loss experienced by the family, and nothing Metro can provide fills the void our organization has created. I met with [Ahn’s wife] in person. I hope I was able to express how sorry I am.”
Turning-bus crashes kill about 35 people a year in North America, said Brian Sherlock, national safety specialist for the Amalgamated Transit Union.
King County reports 155 bus-pedestrian collisions of all types, ranging from noninjury incidents to fatalities, from 2012-17, and $22.8 million in payouts to 68 injured people. There were five deaths from late 2015 to late 2017.
Ahn was leaving Butcher’s Table restaurant at 8:38 p.m. when he approached the corner, and crossed with the walk signal. The intersection bends at tighter than 90 degrees, so bus operators swing left to “set up” the turn. As the driver steered right, she looked to her right, a video taken from a bus-mounted camera shows.
By then Ahn was in the crosswalk, and mostly obscured by the black seals between the two leaves of the front passenger door, said the police report, released through a public-records request.
The right front of the bus struck him 12 to 16 feet from the curb, the report said. He landed on his posterior and tried to escape, when the accordionlike middle of the bus straightened, and pushed him, according to footage from another bus-mounted camera. The rear wheels rolled over him.
The bus driver picked up about 15 passengers before a supervisor told her to stop on Second Avenue, the police report said.
Metro’s safety officer emphasized anyone in the crosswalk has the right of way. “This is a difficult turn and well known in the system. As an experienced operator extra caution needed to be exercised through the area,” its report said.
The transit operator disagreed the crash was preventable. “Due to visibility,” she wrote on a Metro form.
“This certainly sheds a light on a big issue in transit today — bad bus designs and no pedestrian warning systems,” Price said. “But will King County do what it takes to save lives?” The union perennially urges transit agencies to demand vehicles with better sight lines.
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Sherlock suggests buses use a clear, single-swing bus door, for better vision than Metro’s twin-leaf doors. Sound Transit has no plans to relocate the 554 away from the tight Westlake-Blanchard intersection, though it’s currently detoured because of tower construction blocking Blanchard.
More commonly, a driver’s view is hindered by the windshield frame, known as the A pillar. Three years ago, a left-turning Metro bus struck and killed an elderly woman next to Northgate Transit Center.
Metro created a pedestrian avoidance technology group this year, spokesman Jeff Switzer said. A “Walk Safe” ad campaign started late last year.
In-dash alarms are available to warn of people in a bus driver’s blind spot. Metro hasn’t ordered these, in part because the technology is still fast-evolving, Switzer said. Metro tested “talking bus” warnings to pedestrians in 2015. Some bus and truck fleets are equipped with urethane shields, for about $1,400 per wheel, that can sweep fallen people aside, said Chris Ferrone, an expert hired by the Lees.
The agency made safety retrofits before, such as moving mirrors lower so they don’t block the window views. In 2007, downtown tunnel buses were equipped with strobe lights, to reduce odds a mirror would smack people on the boarding platforms. Metro rejected 35 new buses in 2011 and won a partial $4.7 million refund, partly because operators complained about blind spots.
Metro trains and reminds its 3,000 bus operators to “rock-and-roll” – a standard industry technique, to lean fore and aft at intersections. This improves the odds of preventing blind-spot crashes.
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