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Originally published Sunday, February 21, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Metro sidelines new vans after drivers raise safety concerns

Nearly three dozen new King County Metro Transit vans bought last year for $7 million have been pulled off the streets after drivers worried they might hit someone because of poor sightlines from the driver's seat.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Nearly three dozen new King County Metro Transit vans bought last year for $7 million have been pulled off the streets after drivers worried they might hit someone because of poor sightlines from the driver's seat.

Most local transit buses and vans have either a flat front or a small hood, so operators can sit close to the front windshield to look nearly straight down. But the front of the 35 new vans looks more like the nose of a Boston terrier — the drivers sit farther back behind the boxy front hood.

Drivers also had trouble seeing around the vertical pillars at the two front corners, which widen at the bottom, said Paul Bachtel, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587.

"You could lose somebody in a blind spot very easily," he said.

It's a sensitive issue for the union, he said, because transit vehicles in the past have hit pedestrians who were obscured by windshield pillars. On the other hand, the new vans are meant for low-population areas with few pedestrians.

Another problem with the pillars is that they continually interrupt the field of vision for split seconds, causing a strobelike effect that disrupts the brain's ability to perceive objects, Bachtel said. Shorter drivers had trouble looking over the dashboard, and windshield wipers missed water droplets in a critical sight path, he said.

The new StarTrans vans, built in Indiana and worth about $200,000 each, went into service in November on outlying routes in the southern and eastern parts of the county.

After hearing operator complaints, a safety committee of union members and managers discussed and test-drove the vans Jan. 19.

Metro pulled them the next day. They remain parked in the yard. Many sat in neat rows last week at East Base in Bellevue. They are 26-foot StarTrans "President LF" models customized to Metro specs with low-floor entrances. They can seat about 20 people.

Jim Jacobson, deputy general manager of Metro, said Tuesday the agency will be installing different windshield wipers, changing the wiring of interior lights to reduce glare, adding mirrors, lowering a dashboard instrument or making other minor modifications. Costs aren't known.

The van tweaks aren't a big deal, he said.

"We've had issues like this with almost every fleet we've ever purchased. This isn't Toyota here," he said, referring to that company's massive recall.

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But Local 587 Chairman Neal Safrin wrote in the union's newsletter: "While I am not optimistic that such poor vehicle design can be made safe for passenger service, it will be attempted."

Union President Bachtel praised Kevin Desmond, Metro general manager, for taking swift action.

Because this was a small order, Metro pulled the whole group of new vans at once, and restored older vans to the rural routes. In the past with larger bus orders, Metro would retrofit a few at a time, gradually rotating them in and out of service, Jacobson said.

Sam Craig, vice president of StarTrans bus sales in Goshen, Ind., said Tuesday he hadn't heard of Metro's dilemma, and the company hasn't had sightline complaints from other U.S. clients.

"I had King County inspectors from the time I started, from the time I finished all 35 units," he said. Metro requested several minor changes during manufacturing, but not for sightlines, Craig said. "It surprises me they would be taking them off the road."

Metro's strategy for ordering vans will get a closer look, but not until after this group is re-equipped to go back on the road, Jacobson said. "We've had a pretty successful record, buying buses that hold up pretty well," he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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