San Francisco

Muni Video Shows ‘Whiteout' That Drivers Say Temporarily Impairs Their Vision

An internal Muni video reflects driver concerns that the new fleet’s rear-view camera system can render them blind to hazards, potentially putting public safety at risk.

The surveillance video of an incident in October -- obtained by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit – shows the first documented incident of a passenger getting caught in the rear door of a new train.

While Muni has since installed more sensors to prevent more door incidents, drivers point to the October incident as proof of another risk, one they call "whiteout."

In the incident, Jeffrey Lew, 86, got his hand and his plastic bag of cookies stuck in the door as a new train was leaving the West Portal Station in bright afternoon sunlight.

“I stick my hand in there to try to get in -- the next thing I know is the door closed on my hand, and my box of cookies inside the train,” Lew said.

Lew got one hand free and used it bang on the train and wave at the driver. But the driver kept going, and Lew ended up tumbling onto the tracks behind the accelerating train.

“I was really scared,” Lew said of the ordeal, adding he soon suffered a heart condition as he was recovering from various injuries in the incident. "If my hand didn’t get free from the door, I’d be dead.”

He still relives coming face to face with the wall of the upcoming tunnel. And he says he is still puzzled why the driver didn’t see him.

“I thought every train, before they take off, they look outside and see everything’s clear,” Lew said.

But Muni’s own videos show that from the driver’s rear-view video monitor display, the figure of Lew at the rear of a two-car train is barely visible amid the glare in the back of the station.

“It’s a serious safety issue,” Roger Marenco, head of the Muni drivers union, said of the “whiteout” phenomenon on the new fleet. “As soon as a light hits it at a certain angle, it whites out the entire screen; it whites out the entire length of the train.”

The driver’s display monitor measures just 3.5 inches wide by 6 inches tall to begin with, he said, and that’s before any whiteout.

“So you are looking at little grains of salt, little grains of rice on this tiny little monitor. And it’s scary, it’s scary,” Marenco said.

But Muni chief Julie Kirschbaum recently assured city supervisors that the cameras represent a step up from mirrors.

“I think they are actually a big benefit because, unlike a mirror, they can’t be knocked out of order,” she said.

Still, Muni maintenance logs show that new trains routinely have to go “b/o” – short for “broken and out of service”-- due to camera troubles. About once a week on average as of earlier this year.

One of the problems Muni has dealt with, she said, is the lens has been fogging up from water droplets left behind during washing.

But none of the issues had surfaced when, in May of last year, Muni officials went to rail safety regulators at the state Public Utilities Commission asking to waive the state’s train mirror requirement.

That request was granted by the commission in August.

Marenco says no one asked drivers about the idea of simply getting rid of mirrors altogether.

“I wasn’t aware of it, but it’s come to light now, and I’m completely against it;  and I think 99.9 percent of the operators are,” he said.

“Mirrors are absolutely important,” Marenco said. "They are essential to the proper safe functioning of any and all of our vehicles.”

Not asking drivers about abandoning mirrors in favor of new technology was a mistake, said transit safety consultant Dennis Lytton.

“San Francisco has special challenges,” said Lytton, who has helped advise and manage public transit systems nationwide. “You have the tunnels, you have the street run that goes way out to the Outer Sunset.”

He said drivers needed to be consulted on such a key safety question.

“You need to have a better safety culture that brings the stakeholders together,” Lytton concluded.

But Kirschbaum told the city supervisors that Muni is listening to drivers

Muni will order 10-inch screens in response to driver complaints, the agency says. In a statement, Muni says operators can always touch the existing screens to get a better view.

“Before we started with two-car trains, operators did say they did not have enough visibility due to glare,” the agency said in a statement. “We modified those monitors to make them touch screen,” allowing drivers to see down the vehicle from both directions.

While Lew says he is on the mend from his hand and other injuries, he still feels the emotional trauma.

“I couldn’t sleep at night, I get nightmares and everything, you know. I get scared,” he said.

Yet he says he still takes Muni to meet his mahjong buddies.

“Well, you know ... San Francisco," he said. "It’s hard to find parking. Especially downtown.”

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