MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - Some people who use the taxpayer-funded ride service Metro Mobility believe their safety is being compromised due to drivers who are not following safety guidelines. The service is for the elderly and those with disabilities. 40,000 Minnesotans rely on it.
Michelle Anderson never knows what to expect. Will her metro mobility ride be on time? What will the driver be like?
"They're a bunch of speed demons,” she said.
Anderson told the Fox 9 Investigators she never knows if the bus driver will properly secure her motorized wheelchair.
"There’s been drivers that have not ever strapped it down and said as long as it’s off, it doesn’t need to be strapped down," she said.
The wheelchair weighs more than 50 pounds. Imagine the damage it could do if the bus had to swerve or stop suddenly.
TROUBLING TO WATCH
The Fox 9 Investigators used Minnesota's open records law to get a hold of videos from inside the buses that demonstrate what happens when drivers don’t follow safety guidelines. In one instance, a passenger's head slams to the floor when an improperly secured chair tips backwards as the bus speeds up.
The same frightening scenario happened on another Metro Mobility bus. The driver asks the passenger who flipped over in a wheelchair if the person needed an ambulance.
It can happen to people on scooters, too.
In a video, the driver hooked up safety straps to a scooter, but when the bus went around a corner, the passenger tipped sideways.
Since 2010, nine riders have been injured because of unsecured wheelchairs since 2010, according to Metro Mobility. Another six people got hurt getting on or off of a lift.
In one case, the driver wheels a passenger out of the bus to where the lift is supposed to be. The video shows the lift was already lowered to the ground and the driver pushes the passenger out of the van, and the passenger falls to the ground.
Metro Mobility said the number of rider injuries is "very small" compared to the millions of trips taken.
The organization added that some injuries are the fault of drivers, but most are not. For example, not all scooters and wheelchairs are compatible with the buses restraint systems.
There were at least two cases missing from the injury data requested by the Fox 9 Investigators. In one of those cases, Sandra Kline was trying to exit a lift when it malfunctioned and her chair tipped.
“I was thinking ‘oh God, oh God’," Kline remembered. “And bam! I hit the ground."
She broke her leg in the fall and spent a week in the hospital. There were also complications.
“I was told I'll never walk again,” she said.
Another rider using a walker also fractured a leg falling from a lift.
"They told my client to walk and she did, but before she was completely off the lift the lid was raised up and they essentially tripped my client and caused her to fall down." Cole Dixon said, a lawyer from Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben.
Why were these cases left out of the injury numbers? Metro Mobility said it was an oversight and not an attempt to withhold information.
HIGH TURNOVER RATE FOR DRIVERS
The Metropolitan Council owns the buses, but contracts with private companies to provide the drivers.
Last year the turnover rate at one company was 51 percent and 42 percent at another. Drivers do not need a commercial license to get behind the wheel of a Metro Mobility bus. Starting pay is $14 an hour.
Riders told us there are plenty of very good, courteous drivers and some not so good.
Since 2015, there have been 244 unsafe driving complaints lodged against Metro Mobility.
One contractor fired 67 drivers last year.
"Some of them drive like maniacs. You know, they drive too fast," Kline said.
The Fox 9 Investigators followed some drivers and it was easy to find bad driving examples.
It was hard to keep up with one driver. Fox 9 backed off after the speedometer hit 72. Another bus had trouble staying in the driving lane.
Drivers are human. They make mistakes. One backed into a parked car. But, what got him fired was the run after the hit.
No one from the Metropolitan Council, a public agency supported by the public's tax dollars, would agree to an on-camera interview to answer questions about Metro Mobility.
Instead Fox 9 got a prepared statement: "We work daily with our contractors to ensure customer safety is front of mind and that we are taking every precaution to prevent injury."
Drivers are reluctant to talk publicly. But privately, some told us the demands of the job have never been greater. Some put in 10-hour days, and there are more people than ever using the service.
Ridership grew six percent last year, a pace that's expected to continue as the population ages.
FULL STATEMENT FROM THE METROPOLITAN COUNCIL
Customer safety and reliability are the two main goals and responsibilities of Metro Mobility service. We work daily with our contractors to ensure customer safety is front of mind and that we are taking every precaution to prevent injury. Of course, any injury, no matter the cause, is one injury too many.
Metro Mobility service, under contract to the Metropolitan Council, provides more than two million rides a year for 40,000 certified customers; seven days a week, 365 days a year. Ridership in 2016 was up six percent over 2015.
Metro Mobility contract providers make every effort to ensure safe, reliable, and convenient transportation to ALL customers. Despite their best efforts, however, there are, unfortunately, occasional accidents resulting in injury. Those incidents are reviewed, investigated, and reported to the Metropolitan Council.
Because some passengers are vulnerable adults, the presence of a Personal Care Assistant is always welcome. PCAs ride free of charge. Guests may also accompany a certified customer at the standard fare.
As data submitted to Fox 9 show, the number of accidents with injuries is very small. Injury reports for 2016 indicate 29 reported customer injuries, or one reported injury for every 75,862 trips; nearly all injuries are minor in nature. While some injuries are the fault of contracted service drivers, most are not.
Injuries can occur for reasons that are beyond a driver’s control, including improperly maintained sidewalks, steps, and ramps, as well as scooters and wheelchairs that are not compatible with vehicle restraint systems.
When drivers are found to be at fault, contract service providers are expected to take disciplinary or other corrective actions accordingly. Providers’ insurance companies handle claims.
Drivers for the contracted service providers must meet strict guidelines set by the State of Minnesota and participate in regular training and driver safety meetings. All drivers must pass criminal history background and pre-employment drug screen tests. Metro Mobility vehicles are Council-owned and meet and exceed industry standards.
Metro Mobility contracted service is a shared-ride, door-through-door service. In 2016, Metro Mobility service providers met a goal to arrive on time for at least 95 percent of all trips delivered. Despite inclement weather, growing demand, and other circumstances that pose service challenges, the contracted providers do their best to ensure safe and reliable on-time service.