Metro Transit buses were involved in 663 collisions over a one-year period, CBC News has learned.

CBC reporter Bob Murphy filed a freedom-of-information request with Metro Transit and received a database of the crashes involving its buses between November 2010 and November 2011.

It works out to be almost two incidents per day. Collisions range from minor bumps to more serious incidents involving pedestrians, which happened three times, according to the data from Metro Transit.

Several types of collisions recurred. For example, more than 30 involved buses striking utility poles.

In one case last summer, a bus was leaving the Woodside ferry terminal when it struck the base of a traffic light pole, sending it tumbling. The incident was blamed on driver distraction.

In another case, a bus driver fell asleep and struck a light pole. The damage was listed at nearly $11,000.

More than half a dozen of the accidents involved buses hitting parked cars, including CBC reporter Preston Mulligan's car. It happened on Summer Street across from the CBC News building last summer.

"It looked like a bus had pulled up to a bus stop and got ready to pull out and just clipped the back of my car," Mulligan said. "I was parked legally, I had fed the meter, and the bus just clipped the car and the car was a write-off after that."

Don Shewfelt, a personal injury lawyer at Landry McGillivray in Dartmouth, said he's been representing people involved in Metro Transit bus collisions for nearly 25 years. He said he usually has four to six cases on the go at any time.

Shewfelt categorizes them into four types:

  • Where a bus makes contact with a motor vehicle.
  • Where a bus makes contact with a pedestrian.
  • When passengers are getting on or off a bus and are injured because of the movement of the bus.
  • If a passenger is in a seat and the bus is in an at-fault collision and propels the passenger.

Shewfelt said about 50 to 75 per cent of the Metro Transit cases he handles go in his clients' favour.

Who's at fault?

But it's difficult to tell from the data who is at fault.

CBC News obtained a compilation of the worksheets transit accident investigators use. The information includes a description of the accident, the bus number, the time and the location.

For privacy reasons, the copy CBC News received has the names of the bus drivers blocked out.

Bob Murphy said the accident investigators don't determine who is legally at fault. The files are sent to the Halifax Regional Municipality's risk management division, which determines legal liability and deals with Metro Transit insurers.

Murphy learned it can take up to five years for claims to be settled, which is also why total dollar amount for claims and the settlement costs aren't known.

Metro Transit also didn't provide any numbers to show whether the situation was improving.

Comparisons

So how does Metro Transit compare to other public transit services in Canada? Vancouver, Saskatoon and the Ontario cities of St. Catherines and London were chosen at random.

Accidents per hour (2011)

St. Catharines : 1 every 3,664 hrs

London: 1 every 2,859 hrs

Edmonton: 1 every 2,034 hrs

Saskatoon:  1 every 1,779 hrs

Vancouver:  1 every 1,392 hrs

Halifax:  1 every 1,181 hrs

CBC News asked how many hours per year that buses spend on the road, as well as how many collisions involved buses during that time.

Based on that information, Halifax has one of the worst collision rates.

Lori Patterson, a spokeswoman for Metro Transit, didn't want to comment on the findings because of the contract negotiations underway with the union representing bus drivers.

But she said the accident rate is acceptable given the number of hours that buses are on the road.

Committee review

A collision is reviewed by a three-person accident review committee, which is made up of a union representative, transit manager and a third person from outside those organizations.

The committee decides whether each incident is preventable.

Paul MacDonald, the driver representative, said in the contract talks underway, Metro Transit wants to get rid of the committee so it would have sole discretion in deciding whether a collision was avoidable.

He said drivers are worried they will be blamed for some accidents that aren't their fault.

MacDonald said some drivers go 10 to 15 years without a single collision, while others might have multiple incidents on their file. He said one driver was recently fired after a collision, but he wouldn't give details.

If one bus hits another, that's counted as two accidents. But only one is deemed preventable, MacDonald said.

"When you look at the overall numbers," he said, "a lot of these accidents are tree branches, but because we hit a stationary object, they're considered an 'accident.'"

MacDonald said there are a number of reasons for collisions, such as terminals that are too small and too many buses in an area at one time.

He said traffic congestion is getting worse in Halifax, which only compounds the problem of navigating a city with narrow streets and a lot of trees.

More training?

Another issue, MacDonald said, is that between 30 and 40 per cent of bus drivers have fewer than three years of experience.

He said drivers should get more than the six weeks of training they receive now.

"They have one cycle of night driving. They go out for one evening. It's in summertime, so of course it doesn't get dark until later on, so they get very limited time when they're actually out there. And it's a very different world at night," MacDonald said.

The database shows that 10 drivers were involved in five or more collisions in the one-year period.

Metro Transit says it works with drivers who have multiple incidents.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article misattributed Paul MacDonald's comment about training to union leader Ken Wilson.
    Jan 30, 2012 9:22 AM AT
With files from Bob Murphy