The death of a Miami-Dade bus driver who was crushed between two buses might have been prevented had a seat alarm been working — a disturbingly widespread problem in the county’s aging fleet, an investigation by Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4 found.
Laquita Alvin died Dec. 5. She had walked out of her bus, which had automatically stopped because its doors were open. When she reached in through the driver’s seat window and pulled the lever to close the doors, the bus started moving. Alvin hung on, trying to stop it, but got trapped between her bus and another one sitting idle at the Northside bus station at 3150 NW 79th St., where she died. She was 36 and a mother of three.
Alvin’s bus had started moving once she closed its doors because she had apparently forgotten to engage the parking brake, a button on the driver’s left-side panel. The county has called her death a tragic accident. Police are still investigating.
But CBS Miami’s Jim DeFede found Alvin’s bus was equipped with a seat alarm, a warning device that blares and flashes lights when a driver stands without setting the parking brake. The alarm, however, was disabled, its cord tied up in knots, according to a photograph taken by investigators. Unlike automatic cars, which drivers can place in “park,” buses do not have a transmission brake, only a manual one.
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In all, seat alarms were broken or disabled on 92 percent of the county’s 456 buses that have them, according to a survey by the Miami-Dade Transit Department ordered four days after Alvin’s death. A county memo from as far back as 2003 noted the transit department’s intent to outfit buses with the alarms to prevent runaway buses. Miami-Dade’s bus fleet is comprised of more than 800 buses.
It’s unclear why so many of the alarms don’t work. Mayor Carlos Gimenez directed the transit department Monday — the night the CBS report first aired — to look into it, said Mike Hernández, his spokesman.
“Mayor Gimenez has ordered an exhaustive investigation into these safety features to prevent any other tragedies,” Hernández told the Herald. Tampering, he added, is “one of the possibilities” the county is looking into.
Over the past two days, the county has sampled disabled alarms on 35 buses and found that 20 of them — 57 percent — had been disconnected and not broken, Hernández said. The inspections will continue.
“The unfortunate accident that took Ms. Alvin’s life is not associated with deferred maintenance,” transit spokeswoman Karla Damian said in a statement to the Herald. She said the bus had preventive maintenance work as recently as Nov. 20, 2014, including a check of the seat alarm. “Records indicate that the seat alarm was working when this work was completed.”
There were 10 other runaway-bus incidents in the county last year, according to the transit department, including six that resulted in crashes. All 10 say the driver “failed to properly secure the vehicle.”
It’s the drivers’ responsibility to securely park buses, which don’t come with seat alarms from manufacturers. But though the county apparently considers them useful — Miami-Dade installs the alarms itself — other bus parts get priority for repairs, said Melvin Gonzalez, the chief shop steward for the Transit Workers Union Local 291.
“You have to pick and choose what you’re going to fix on the vehicle,” Gonzalez, a 21-year county veteran, told the Herald.
Budget cuts have resulted in scaled-back bus maintenance in recent years, with less money and fewer mechanics to fix problems. The shop is more than 40 mechanics short, according to Gonzalez.
Old buses also remain on the road, because they are expensive to replace. A typical 40-foot bus costs between $400,000 and $450,000, Transit Director Ysela Llort told the Herald last April. A larger, “articulated” bus — the type that runs on Interstate-95 express lanes, for example — costs closer to $900,000. Thirty-five new buses have been recently purchased, according to the county, with 64 more coming soon for a county commission vote.
“Probably 70-odd percent have exceeded their life, but it’s what you have,” Hugh Chen, the transit department’s deputy director for operations, told CBS.
“We’re not going to put out vehicles that aren’t safe,” he said.
That statement was disputed by Gonzalez, the union steward.
“If we’re putting a bus out there without a seat alarm, that’s a problem,” he told CBS.
Some buses don’t have working windshield wipers, Gonzalez added as an example, yet they may still go on the road if it’s not raining.