How RTS And Alachua County Schools Have Worked To Improve Bus Safety

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Gainesville oncologist Dr. Stephen Staal was riding his bike home from work on a September evening in 2016.

A Regional Transit System bus driver was approaching a roundabout at the intersection of Southwest 12th Street and Southwest Second Avenue between the University of Florida and downtown Gainesville.

Staal, who was wearing his safety vest and helmet, pulled up next to the bus, which stopped briefly at the yield sign.

The bus driver then made a right turn and struck Staal, causing his left leg to be trapped between the bus and curb.

Staal, 69 years old at the time, was taken to the trauma unit at UF Health Shands, where a surgeon found the damage to be severe.

“He thought the most reasonable thing to do would be just to amputate,” Staal said.

Staal opted to sue the City of Gainesville as a result of the incident and eventually settled for $176,000.

“There are people on the line,” Staal said, “And so, in a way, (RTS has) to advocate for the safest driving conditions possible.”

His is just one of the 167 RTS-involved lawsuits and insurance claims that have been filed against the city since fiscal year 2014, costing the city about $1 million in settlements and legal fees.

A majority of these lawsuits are negligence or auto negligence claims, like Staal’s, where plaintiffs are seeking monetary compensation for the harm they claim city employees caused.

The city pays for these claims by using a general insurance fund supported by city taxpayers and ratepayers of Gainesville Regional Utilities. The maximum amount an individual can receive for claims against the city is $200,000 per person and a total limit of $300,000 per incident.

“From 2017, with all these little changes, we’re a much safer organization. We have fewer accidents, fewer falls,” RTS spokesman Thomas Idoyaga said.

These changes, according to Idoyaga, include:

• Emphasis on safety training during the summer and reduced service periods;
• Dedicated safety supervisor to retrain drivers following incidents;
• New buses equipped with different rear flashing lights that reduce buses being rear-ended;
• And a new sensor (still being tested) that alerts bus drivers of pedestrians or bicyclists in their blind spots.

“Every time we have an accident, especially if it’s a fault accident, then there’s a potential of some lot of money being paid out,” Reginald Thomas said.

Another local government agency with a large fleet of buses — the Alachua County School District — also pays an annual insurance premium to the Florida School Board Insurance Trust.

Since 2014, the school district has paid over $1.2 million dollars as a result of 151 incidents and closed claims involving school buses.

District spokeswoman Jackie Johnson confirmed last year’s annual premium (a little over $4 million) is at least part of a decreasing trend in recent years.

“Every day I come in with a mindset of no accident,” Alachua County Public Schools transportation director Reginald Thomas said.

Besides minimizing insurance payouts, Thomas said he wants to fill six driver vacancies in his department and closely monitor and aid school bus drivers who work overtime.

“Every time we have an accident, especially if it’s a fault accident, then there’s a potential of some lot of money being paid out,” Thomas said.

About Quan McWil

Quan is a reporter at WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org or calling 352-392-6397.

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