San Franciscans can be a fairly entitled bunch. But we are, at the very least, entitled to ride on a vehicle that also carries a driver. So, the Muni light-rail passengers who earlier this month noticed their driver standing on the platform while their train took off from Castro Station — they're entitled to complain.
The rest of us are entitled to confusion at Muni transit director John Haley's subsequent statement that "the system worked the way it was designed." Muni trains weren't designed to require quick-thinking passengers emerging from horrified crowds to stop the vehicle. And they weren't designed to be operated without drivers.
The operator of that light-rail vehicle may have violated at least four basic safety procedures, most notably leaving the train on "automatic" mode and, quite possibly, failing to engage the emergency brake before gallivanting off the vehicle. But the entire dangerous and embarrassing scenario could have been staved off with a rudimentary safety device all but certainly found in your automobile — and de rigueur on Muni buses for years.
Drivers' seat sensors — which detect the presence of a human being or at least something weighing a few pounds — are an established enough feature of mass transit that manufacturers offer them alongside options such as "Seat Heat (Backrest & Seat Cushion)," and "Adjustable Armrests." It's a device whose cost runs into the hundreds of dollars; Muni sources claim installing one in a train to either halt the vehicle sans driver or trigger a godawful alarm would be a simple operation.
In fact, confirms Muni spokesman Paul Rose, they've long been in other Muni vehicles — though not ones with an "automatic" mode like trains. The Orion hybrid buses ordered in 2007 came equipped with seat sensors, as did the most recent batch of shiny new $750,000 New Flyer hybrids, says Rose.
In reality, however, seat sensors have been in place far longer than that. Schematics obtained by SF Weekly for Muni's Neoplan buses going back to 1999 reveal they were equipped with a "driver's seat alarm sensor." City buses have also long had seat-belt alarms — which drivers elude by buckling the belt behind the seat or sitting atop it.
Muni trains, however, have no driver's-seat belts. And they have no driver's-seat sensors.
That's a far cry from the situation a few hundred miles south, where Los Angeles Metro has equipped trains with sensors that not only detect a driver, but sniff out his or her cellphone usage.
In San Francisco, however, cellphone-jamming technology might be ill-advised. A driver trotting alongside a runaway train needs to call up Central Command somehow.