Since June, two members of the University community — a student and a staff member — have died from University bus accident-related injuries, raising concerns about the safety policies in place for University drivers.
With a total of six bus-related accidents, deaths or instances of negligence having occurred in the last year and a half, a spokesperson at the University’s Parking and Transportation Services said they are always working to improve their methods of instructing drivers — including the implementation of a three-phase training system last April — to ensure that drivers are well equipped to operate transit vehicles.
In October, a University bus hit 24-year-old engineering graduate student Derek Tat while he was on his bike. In June, University Housing employee Nancy Sanders was hit by a University bus and died from the resulting injuries.
Last year, there were four bus-related incidents of driver error. In September 2013, a University bus crashed into and destroyed an unoccupied bus shelter near North Campus, and during that same month, three students fell out of the back of a University bus on its way to Michigan Stadium. In October 2013, a University bus got stuck in a turnaround next to the Michigan Union. Then, in November 2013, a University bus driver was arrested for driving his vehicle off-route and abandoning it while he went into his house for several hours.
Jason Bidwell, the PTS transit services manager, said training protocols have doubled since then so that incidents like those that have occurred in the past year and a half can be avoided.
“My first priority was to look at how we were doing training and see if there was anything we could improve or revise,” he said.
Driver training is now a three-phase process: First, a potential driver learns to maneuver the vehicle without passengers. Then he or she has to complete in-service training, which involves operating routes and picking up passengers alongside a licensed driver. A third party administers a commercial driver’s license exam, and if the potential driver passes, then he or she returns for any final additional training, if needed.
LSA senior Meagan Tucker, who has been driving a University bus since May 2013, said she felt very comfortable driving a bus by the time she reached in-service training, during which she would operate a bus with a licensed driver or observe strategies for driving, such as scanning patterns and knowing when to stop.
According to Bidwell, 70 percent of students and temporary hires who enter the training process succeed. But 30 percent don’t reach proficiency, and if at any point it becomes clear that they aren’t progressing at a satisfactory pace, trainers then meet and discuss an improvement plan. If after that meeting prospective drivers still don’t demonstrate sufficient improvement, they are released.
Bidwell said PTS is always observing its operations to identify potential improvements. After an accident, PTS officials review the incident to see how it could have been avoided. Bidwell said PTS is also looking at route planning and scheduling in order to add cushion routes with extra travel time. These routes allow drivers to focus on safety first and discourages them from rushing to their next stop.
Tucker said schedule and route planning changes have helped immensely.
“We know safety comes first and schedule comes last,” she said. “Even if I feel that I’m falling behind I don’t worry about it because there are different ways to catch up.”
However, Tucker said she feels that drivers have developed a bad reputation, partly as a result of buses not always running on time and partly as a reaction to some of the incidents that have occurred over the last few years.
“I don’t think people understand what it takes to be a bus driver and the amount of attention it requires and the tests we have to pass,” she said. “People just get frustrated because we’re late.”
Despite these incidents, Bidwell said students make excellent drivers and PTS should continue to employ them.
“Students at the University of Michigan are some of the best and brightest young people that we have in the country,” he said. “We’re a great University, and students go on to do great things, and I think they do great things while they’re here being students. Included in that is driving transit coaches. They’re fully capable and they do a great job.”
Bidwell declined to comment on the details of the two most recent accidents, their legal repercussions or the disciplinary actions taken against the drivers involved in them.
“Our thoughts and prayers really go out to anybody affected by this. We’re really saddened by these events,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and the people that have been affected by these things.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the name of PTS manager Jason Bidwell. The description of the September 2013 bus collision with a bus shelter has also been updated to more accurately describe the shelter’s location.