Recent death prompts 2 Investigates to look closer at VTA bus safety
2 Investigates has obtained new evidence suggesting that a recently retired South Bay transit employee was hit and killed after stepping off the bus he was just riding. An autopsy report shows the blood of 60-year-old Benny Cheung was found on a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) bus suspected of hitting him on March 23, 2017.
Shortly after the accident, San Jose police suspected the death was a result of a hit-and-run. However, a leaked internal VTA memo first reported by The Mercury News said “Mr. Cheung had just de-boarded the VTA bus involved in this tragic accident.” San Jose Police have reportedly updated its investigation since the memo was published.
READ: Leaked internal VTA memo regarding Benny Cheung's death
Cheung’s death prompted 2 Investigates to look further into accidents involving VTA buses and pedestrians, and how the agency handles driver retraining and safety procedures. KTVU investigators found Cheung’s incident isn’t the only one where a VTA bus appears to be involved in the past few years.
Data provided by the agency shows, since 2013, there have been 66 incidents involving VTA buses and pedestrians, which includes bikers, skateboarders, and riders who just de-boarded. Of those incidents, 22 people reported injuries, and three people died, according to VTA.
“My first reaction to Mr. Cheung’s death was I knew exactly what happened. No ifs, ands or buts,” said San Jose attorney Richard Alexander. “He exited the rear door on the bus and lost his life by being crushed by the rear tire.”
Alexander claims he knows what happened to Cheung because of similarities in the civil case of Gopal and Saraswathi Iyer of Sunnyvale. Alexander represented them after an April 2015 accident also involving the VTA bus they were on. The bus’s rear wheels ran over the elderly couple at De Anza Boulevard and Homestead Road in Cupertino shortly after they tried to de-board through the rear door.
“We had been [riding] by bus for six years. Together always. Wherever we go, we go together,” said Gopal Iyer.
Gopal told 2 Investigates he exited the bus first and turned around to help his wife down. He said, suddenly the door closed on Saraswathi causing her to fall and both of them to hit the ground.
“I’m shouting that time please open the door. Please open the door! Nobody knows. Suddenly I fell down,” said Saraswathi.
Gopal said he saw the bus’s rear tires go over him and his wife. He said he thought those were their last moments.
According to the accident report obtained by KTVU, the driver 63-year-old Christine Lorri Hustedt admitted she “did not see [Gopal and Saraswathi Iyer] trying to exit the doors” before running them over. And “she did not feel any bumps or anything unusual.”
The Iyers survived, but the weight of the bus broke Gopal’s hand and elbow and crushed Saraswathi’s right leg. Saraswathi says she has undergone 13 surgeries and is permanently disabled. Both of them take heavy narcotics and have limited mobility. They said they lost a part of their lives money can’t buy because of the accident.
“Total life is completely gone for us now. Now we are almost on house arrest. We can’t go anywhere because of her leg. Even she can’t sit in an automobile because he leg can’t bend,” said Gopal.
In court, the Iyers learned their accident was not the driver’s first incident. VTA records show Hustedt had been involved in at least three prior collisions before accident with the Iyers. VTA deemed one accident as “preventable.” Hustedt received one day of re-training for two of the three incidents, according to the documents. After the re-training, she was allowed to operate a bus again.
READ: VTA records showing details of some previous retraining completed by Hustedt
Last year, the Iyers settled their multimillion dollar lawsuit against the VTA. The agency confirmed Husdtedt is still currently employed as a bus operator.
2 Investigates requested an on-camera interview to find out what safety and training protocols are in place at VTA, and why information about Cheung’s death was not made public until an internal memo was leaked.
KTVU also wanted to ask about Hustedt’s driving record, including whether three prior accidents would have prompted any extraordinary disciplinary action or special training.
VTA declined an on-camera interview, and a spokesperson later e-mailed the following statements:
May 12, 2017:
“VTA’s bus network logs nearly 20-million miles of service annually and is in the top 30% nationally for lowest number of injury accidents per service miles delivered. Our operators go through 8-weeks of intensive training before being allowed to transport the public, and are required to participate in ongoing and annual refresher trainings. In the unfortunate situation where an accident does occur, VTA works with the investigative agency as well as conducts a thorough internal investigation that includes the operator and the equipment. VTA not only meets but exceeds state and federal safety guidelines for operations, in its continual effort to ensure the safety of the public and its personnel.”
May 16, 2017:
“Accidents are categorized as preventable and non-preventable. A non-preventable accident is one that can’t be prevented by operator action or non-action. An accident is determined preventable when there is sufficient supporting evidence to determine the operator may have failed to do what they had been trained. When an operator is involved in an accident deemed “preventable” they are brought through the Training Department for evaluation and retraining. The Operator is assigned to a Technical Trainer who determines what training is needed for retraining. The Trainer will have the Operator perform some maneuvers and street driving and evaluate their skills and behind the wheel comfort, specifically looking at skills that may have contributed or prevented the accident. The Superintendent may also add items that they want the Tech Trainer to focus on.
In non-preventable accidents, the Superintendents may (and have) refer operators to the Training Department if they feel it is necessary. For instance if an operator is involved in a non-preventable accident but has been shaken up or is less confident etc., they will receive additional training and support.
With more minor accidents, like a mirror hitting a pole and there is no damage, trainers may meet the operator in service.”
Linh Hoang, Communications & Media Spokesperson
At a public meeting at VTA headquarters, 2 Investigates tried getting more detailed answers from Rufus Francis, the agency’s Director of System Safety and Security. He was also the VTA employee who wrote the internal memo regarding Cheung’s death, which was later leaked to the media.
Francis declined to speak with 2 Investigates and referred back to VTA’s media spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross. She declined to provide any further details on the Iyers’ case, Cheung’s death, or Hudstedt’s driving record, saying she could not discuss personnel matters.
Ross also referred 2 Investigates back to the above e-mails for general answers on how VTA retrains drivers. She also declined to explain why VTA did not publicize any information about Cheung’s death, despite Francis distributing an internal memo that appeared to conclude that a VTA bus was involved in the accident.
The media relations office later sent a more detailed email to 2 Investigates providing further explanation of retraining policies, but they did not comment on what specific retraining Hudstedt underwent after the incidents in which she was involved.
May 22, 2017:
“Depending on the circumstances of the accident, the operator may be met in-route, or scheduled to come in to the Training Department. In instances where little to no damage has occurred, for example - a mirror taps a pole and nothing breaks, we may meet that operator in-route, discuss the situation, and provide a ride evaluation at that time. However, with operators involved in injury accidents, we schedule those operators to come into the training department.
That meeting includes discussing the accident with the operator, reviewing any available video, and discussing where and how the accident was determined to be preventable (ways to avoid similar situations in the future). The operator views training videos that reintroduces them to basic driving habits and then the operator is taken on a drive evaluation. In most cases, the operator returns to the location of the accident. All situations are different and we work to ensure that the operators understand why the accident was coded preventable, and what they can do to prevent them from being in the same situation moving forward.”
Linh Hoang, Communications & Media Spokesperson
On Wednesday night, before 2 Investigates’ report even aired, VTA posted an online statement stating they “do not believe the segment will be objective.” The agency also emphasized its safety record, pointing out that VTA is among the top 30 percent of transit agencies nationwide for the fewest injury accidents per service mile.
READ: VTA’s full statement regarding 2 Investigates’ report on bus safety
As of Wednesday, San Jose police and VTA said they have no further information to release on the investigation into Cheung’s death. According to police, the driver stopped after the accident and cooperated with investigators. VTA says the driver is on paid administrative leave, but would provide no further details.
KTVU Investigative reporter Candice Nguyen contributed to this report.