Transportation Alternatives — a consulting and forensic accident analysis/expert witness firm — has received a rash of cases in the last two years involving transit bus-related turning accidents. Every one of these vehicles was making a left turn and struck a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Looking at all vehicle-pedestrian accidents, left turn-related collisions outnumber right turn-related collisions substantially (by 3 to 1 according to a recent government report: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/2012_left-turns-pedestrian-safety_trb2012.pdf).
Six years ago, transit agencies in Des Moines and Cleveland banned their buses from making left turns altogether: http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2010/05/left-turn_accidents_like_fatal.html. Others (e.g., Louisville’s Transit Authority of River City) require left-turning buses to first come to a complete stop. And in 2015, Seattle METRO conducted a study that correlated insufficient running time with left-turn vehicle-pedestrian collisions. However, these transit agencies remain well ahead of the curve. Transit agencies are generally recalcitrant about addressing the most common underlying causation of this problem: Many or most major urban transit systems’ schedules are so tight that drivers race around “rolling turns” despite the additional recovery time they create by making other “safety compromises.” Because a large part of our work at Transportation Alternatives involves forensic analysis/expert witness services, we regularly deal with left-turning accidents resulting it fatalities or severe injuries, most often in large urban systems, where General Managers and Executive Directors know, or should know, the consequences of their routes’ tight schedules.
Despite the blame that defendants’ attorneys often try to assign to pedestrians, one government study found that drivers were at fault 79 percent of the time (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/safety/pedbike/03042/part2.cfm). But most of these studies simply focused on the symptoms, whereas the underlying causation lies much further up the management hierarchy. Poor training (mostly the poor retention and application of it that renders it meaningless) is certainly a problem. But far more importantly, drivers are compelled (or at least “encouraged”) to comply with increasingly tight schedules — and literally cut corners while doing so, running down pedestrians in the process.
Other factors relate to vehicle and road design. Poor mirror positioning and especially A-pillar design have been partly blamed for many of these collisions because they allegedly create blind spots that obstruct the driver’s view of pedestrians in front of, or to the side of, the bus. In truth, drivers are taught (or should be taught) to “rock-and-roll” their heads before and during turns. And they should be taught to either come to a complete stop before making a left turn, or at least bringing their buses to a crawl. Yet this caution is rarely included in classroom training. If a driver does not follow this practice, when he or she spots a pedestrian in or about to enter a crosswalk during the bus’ “rolling turn,” that driver’s reaction time and braking distance are such that the driver will often spot the pedestrian when it is too late to stop the bus.
Roadway design and marking/striping issues also contribute to these problems. On many streets at signalized intersections — where a motorist’s eyeballs don’t have to be aligned practically with the extended, near-side curb line — limit lines are often placed much too close to intersections. So when drivers of large vehicles initiate their turns from a perpendicular roadway too close to the intersection, their vehicles actually enter many of these roadways — particularly streets too narrow — on the wrong side of the street. These too-narrow streets are impossible for drivers to make proper, “square” turns into, and induce drivers to “cheat” — turning prematurely. When tight schedules compound this problem, drivers race through “rolling turns” and when they happen to spot a pedestrian in the roadway, it is too late to stop. Further, forced to enter these streets on the wrong side of the road from these same maneuvers, they risk smashing into vehicles waiting at limit lines too close to the corner on the perpendicular streets.
In response to these and other problems (left turns are more frequent even for regular automobiles), some cities are moving to ban most left turns altogether. For example, many major intersections in Detroit are configured with “turnarounds:” Drivers must first turn right, half a block later turn left into an opening in the perpendicular street’s wide median strip, and then turn left into traffic moving in the same direction — instead of having to first cross several lanes of traffic traveling in the opposite direction from which the motorist, bus driver or truck driver wishes to travel.
While some of the more adventurous measures — like those taken by Detroit decades ago — are costly, the roadways of most urban areas simply don’t contain the room for them. Or the establishment of these wide, center-road medians would come at the cost of removing entire traffic lanes — a loss of capacity that would burden both motorists and commercial vehicles with an almost exponential increase in traffic. So addressing the problems noted by following a few basic rules about turning, and employing some common sense about striping limit lines and choosing wider streets for large vehicles to turn into, would definitely go a long way in preventing many vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian turning accidents.
For a more in-depth discussion of these issues ,and what can be done to remedy them, check out turningaccidents.com, a new initiative by Transportation Alternatives to educate and broaden the understanding of these problems and solutions to the general public, but more importantly to those in the road and highway construction community, the passenger and freight transportation communities, and particularly in the legal community — since almost every serious vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-pedestrian collision (especially those involving a large vehicle) translates into a lawsuit.