Action News investigation into SEPTA's safety record reveals alarming trend

ByChad Pradelli and Cheryl Mettendorf WPVI logo
Thursday, April 8, 2021
Action News investigation into SEPTA's safety record reveals alarming trend
An Action News investigation into SEPTA's safety record has revealed an alarming trend about bus safety and its drivers.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- An Action News investigation into the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's safety record has revealed an alarming trend about bus safety and the transit agency's drivers.

In SEPTA bus dashcam video obtained by Action News, you can see Hayley Freilich walking along the side of bus 8310 on Broad and Vine streets back on October 2017.

"It was turning so fast and so sharp that I could not get out of the way," Freilich said.

The traffic signal shows the pedestrian crossing indicator, yet the bus driver makes a hard right, striking Freilich.

"I remember just being on the ground. I didn't know the extent of my injury at that time. I just knew that it was really painful," she added.

On that life-changing day, Frelich remembers an EMT nurse treating her on the cold pavement. She was rushed into Hahnemann Hospital where doctors amputated half of her foot.

"Your mind starts to spiral as to how much it will affect your life," she recalls.

The accident is one of more than 14,000 SEPTA bus accidents from 2016 through 2019. It's an alarming number that raises questions about the safety of SEPTA buses and its drivers.

"Yes, 14,000 sounds like a high number, but when you put it in the context of the 45 million miles that we travel, I think we run a safe operation," said Assistant General Manager Scott Sauer, who is in charge of bus operations at SEPTA, and also a former bus driver.

WATCH: Digging deeper into Action News' investigation into SEPTA safety

Chad Pradelli and Cheryl Mettendorf discuss Action News' investigation into SEPTA's safety record.

"Driving through these streets is a very challenging proposition for a bus operator driving a large vehicle down streets that, quite frankly, were designed in the 1780s," added Sauer.

Under Right to Know laws, Action News requested four years' worth of bus collision reports for SEPTA, as well as similar bus transportation agencies in Chicago and Houston.

Federal Transportation Administration reports found that SEPTA has a bus accident for roughly every 100,000 miles driven.

Data also shows that the Metro Public Transit in Houston has an accident for every 1.2 million miles driven. And Chicago Transit experiences an accident for every 2.4 million miles driven.

That means a passenger on SEPTA is more than 20 times more likely to be involved in an accident than in Chicago.

"I am surprised by the discrepancy," Sauer said. "And I can't explain why Chicago's numbers are so low."

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High-profile civil attorney, Tom Kline, is representing Freilich.

"It is a horrible, sad, terrible tragedy that never should have happened, but for the reckless misconduct, once again, of SEPTA," Kline said.

Kline said damage caps in the Commonwealth, currently 250,000 per victim, have allowed SEPTA to recklessly operate with little consequence.

He called the cap outdated and minimal after decades of inflation.

"How can it possibly be fair, possibly be right, for the damages, in this case, to be limited to $250,000?" asked Kline.

Further analysis of the data shows Routes 23, 21, and 47 are the most dangerous bus routes with little over a dozen accidents per month.

Sauer said those are highly traveled and congested routes in Center City and through Germantown and Chestnut Hill. He called a majority of those accidents "minor in nature."

"I'm well aware of it because we focus our efforts on all these routes," Sauer said.

Over the four-year period analyzed, SEPTA fired 422 drivers, 46 of which were for chargeable accidents or involving pedestrians.

Comparably, Chicago Transit terminated 465 drivers.

"We have an independent safety department that watches our operation and measures our success," Sauer said. "We take action on any operator that breaks the rules and results in an accident."

"Would it be fair to say you have work to do?" asked Action News.

"Oh, for sure. I mean, yes, I wholeheartedly agree that there's always work to do," Sauer said. "My heart bleeds for people that are involved in those accidents. I would never want to see anybody subjected to those kinds of injuries, or struck at all."

SEPTA couldn't comment on Frelich's accident since it is in litigation. The bus driver, though, was fired.

Frelich now wears a prosthetic. Her favorite passion, dancing, is no longer an option. She hopes her story will improve SEPTA's safety record on the roads.

"It is something that I know I'm going to have to deal with, at this point, literally the rest of my life," she said.