One might have thought that buses – some of the largest vehicles navigating Portland’s streets on a day-to-day basis – are fairly hard to miss. TriMet, however, is experimenting with bright rooftop lights designed to make them easier to see, according to The Oregonian. “The transit agency quietly rolled out the ‘amber safety lights’ in April and, so far, 30 buses are equipped with the light bar. It’s considering installing the devices on all its buses,” the newspaper reports.
The Oregonian, citing TriMet data, writes that “buses log roughly 73,300 miles on a daily basis. In April, TriMet registered 49 collisions involving buses, 25 of which were non-injury crashes involving cars or trucks.” Put another way, that means that TriMet is averaging almost one injury crash per day systemwide. Portland is a large city and there is always going to be a human element involved, but a system in which someone gets hurt every day clearly has more safety work to do.
So, at a basic level, we should all welcome any effort by TriMet to cut its accident rate. The newspaper’s article reports that the lights on the busses are extremely hard to miss, and notes that the cost of installing then is relatively slight – less than $500 per vehicle. Considering the number of bus accidents I have reported on in this blog over the years we can probably all agree that anything which improves safety is a good thing.
As a Portland attorney who has long worked with and advocated for the cycling community and supported Vision Zero I welcome this initiative. It supplements recent changes to the laws surrounding bike lanes and intersections as well as the city’s efforts to add crosswalks to some especially high-risk areas. The focus on safety is especially important because the law places significant limitations on Oregonians’ ability to claim damages if they are injured or a loved one is killed in a TriMet accident. The Oregon Tort Claims Act, as outlined in ORS 30.269, exempts public agencies from punitive damages while a related statute (ORS 30.272) sets limits on the “liability of state and local public bodies for personal injury, death, and property damage or destruction.” These are adjusted for inflation each year and are currently set at $749,900 for any single injury or death claim and just under $1.5 million total for any action involving multiple claimants. For property damage the limits are a mere $122,900 and $614,300 respectively – amounts that will not go far in 2019 (see link below for the figures as published on the State Judicial Branch’s website).
While bright lights that make busses easier to see are a good idea, the real priority when it comes to preventing accidents is making sure the bus drivers are focusing on safety at all times.
According to TriMet’s own figures minor, non-injury crashes (such as a bus clipping the rearview mirror on a parked car) “generally rise when the agency is training up a new crop of drivers and fall once those drivers gain experience.” That implies that the agency’s training needs to improve. All of us have seen instances where a bus ought to have taken more care vis-à-vis cyclists, especially when pulling out of the bus stop necessitates crossing a bike lane. Drivers need much more rigorous training in the use of their mirrors, and TriMet needs to do more to ensure compliance.
Oregon Judicial Branch: Oregon Tort Claims Act Liability Limits