VTA employees raise concern over bus driver re-training

- After multiple 2 Investigates reports on Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority bus safety, current and former employees came forward to express concern about the focus of the agency and the re-training of drivers after accidents. Workers with inside knowledge of the South Bay agency said there are flaws with VTA’s safety system.

A former VTA employee, who we’ll call Jane, told 2 Investigates she worked for VTA for 15 years, most recently as a bus operator. She didn’t want to reveal her real identity out of fear of retaliation and has a wrongful termination complaint against the agency.

Jane said when she was a bus operator, it wasn’t unusual for drivers to get involved in incidents where they needed driving skills re-training.

“The couple of times I went on re-training, it was very laid back,” she said. “The re-training depends on the trainer. For instance, with mine he wanted to get some errands done. He picked up some stuff from the store and went back to the yard, and that was it. That was my re-training.”

In May, 2 Investigates reported on VTA driver Christine Hustedt who was the bus operator involved in the 2015 accident where her bus ran over an elderly couple. The victims survived but suffered life-changing injuries. The couple settled with the transit agency for approximately $7.5 million dollars.

According to VTA documents, Hustedt already had multiple collisions on her record at the time of the 2015 accident. For one of those, she received a single day of re-training five months after the accident.

“Once the accident happens, the re-training doesn’t happen immediately. It happens months down the road or even a year. You’re like, why am I even here?” said Jane. “It should’ve happened right away.

VTA’s Chief Operating Office Inez Evans agreed to a phone interview with 2 Investigates. She said, “I can tell you we are addressing our accidents based on staffing and the incidents that occur. We have four tech trainers that are assigned to provide training. We are going through a comprehensive review to train additional line instructors.”

In terms of the VTA documents that showed a five month delay in the re-training for Hustedt’s cases, Evans responded via email saying, “There is no more information that I can add to explain the time between the accident and the re-training for these incidents.”

When asked about the concern that VTA re-training is lax and inconsistent, Evans said she couldn’t comment on cases she wasn’t familiar with and that each incident is dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

“I’ve taken a very comprehensive review of all of my departments when it comes to training and retraining aspects we’re working through,” she said.

2 Investigates wanted to check how VTA’s bus safety record compares with those of other similar agencies.

Our team looked at federal transit data from the National Transit Database. It shows VTA’s collision rate is lower compared to similar sized agencies nationally, and, since 2014, its injury accident rate has been significantly lower than that of AC Transit and SFMTA.

John Courtney with Amalgamated Transit Union Local #265 said he’s still concerned about the agency’s focus and overall transparency.

“There are some missing pieces of safety throughout the system. I personally believe we do have good trainers, but maybe as we spoke earlier this might be a time to re-assess,” he said.

Courtney was talking about re-assessing after major accidents the March death of long-time VTA employee Benny Cheung. An autopsy report showed Cheung was intoxicated when he was apparently hit and killed by the bus he was just riding. The manner of his death was only made public through a leaked internal VTA memo. San Jose police said Cheung’s death is still under investigation.

“Anytime we have an injury or a fatality we should be open to an honest assessment of our system,” he said.

When asked if VTA is looking into any of its safety procedures after Cheung’s death, Evans responded, “We are constantly in review, Candice, to always look at the safety of our system and our protocol throughout all the time.”

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