Driver error blamed in Union Square bus crash

A tour bus crash in San Francisco’s Union Square that injured 19 people in November was caused by driver error, police and the California Highway Patrol announced Wednesday.

The driver of the bus, San Francisco resident Kenneth Malvar, 53, was issued a citation today for speeding after an investigation concluded that he hit the accelerator instead of the brake during the Nov. 13 crash, authorities said.

His attorney Robert Cartwright said Malvar is also likely to face civil lawsuits from those injured in the crash.

The double-decker City Sightseeing bus was carrying passengers shortly before 3 p.m. when it struck a bicyclist in the 500 block of Post Street, according to police.

The bus then began accelerating down Post Street, reaching speeds of 40 to 45 mph in an area with a posted limit of 25 mph, police said.

It hit construction barricades, other vehicles, construction scaffolding and a utility pole before coming to a stop in the 300 block of Post Street, according to police.

In total, the bus struck 12 motor vehicles, four pedestrians and the bicyclist, and injured 19 people including the bus operator, a bus employee, 10 people in other vehicles and two bus passengers, police said. At least six of those injured were thought to have life-threatening injuries at the time of the crash.

Police said after the crash that mechanical failure was suspected, but a CHP inspection found no issues with the brakes, steering, throttle or other critical safety components.

Sgt. Kevin Eddison, the San Francisco police traffic investigator who handled the case, said the driver believed he had stepped on the brakes, but the investigation found no evidence of braking, either in the vehicle’s computer or in friction marks on the road.

Eddison said:

“We believe he just stepped on the throttle.”

Investigators found no evidence that drugs or alcohol or driver fatigue played a role in the crash, Eddison said.

California Public Utilities Commission officials have previously said the bus involved in the crash was a “ghost bus,” meaning it was not properly registered or inspected by the CHP.

While City Sightseeing had passed an inspection shortly before the crash, a surprise inspection conducted shortly afterward found multiple violations.

However, CHP officials today said the investigation found the bus had been properly maintained before the crash.

CHP Officer Daniel Hill said that while there were some “documentation issues” found in an inspection of the company, “the company has cooperated fully with CHP recommendations and fixed everything they needed to.” City Sightseeing has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Cartwright, Malvar’s attorney, said he had spoken to attorneys representing some of the victims in the crash and expects civil lawsuits to be filed.

He said Malvar, who was badly injured in the crash and only recently was able to get out of bed, tried to hit the brakes during the crash but got no response, despite what investigators say.

Cartwright said Malvar did his best to steer the bus safely and avoid hitting anything:

“He knows the difference between the gas and brake, he’s been driving (buses) for 15 years.”

The attorney said he was concerned that investigators had dismantled the bus, making it difficult to examine for possible mechanical defects.

The Union Square crash has triggered increased scrutiny for the tour bus industry and inspired a package of state legislation introduce by San Francisco state Assemblymen Phil Ting and David Chiu and state Sen. Jerry Hill.

The bills seek to increase safety inspections and improve the regulation of tour bus companies, require the Department of Motor Vehicles and CPUC to work together to identify tour buses that have not been registered with the CPUC, and allow cities such as San Francisco to conduct their own supplemental safety inspections.

San Francisco has seen other crashes involving tour buses in recent years, including one in January in which a pedestrian, 82-year-old Pieter Roell, was struck and killed on Post Street at Divisadero Street. The driver in that crash, Vincent Jones, 61, has been charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

Police also cited Jones for violating a city ordinance prohibiting tour bus operators from narrating tours while they drive. That ordinance was passed after a city employee, Priscila “Precy” Moreto, was struck by a tour bus and killed at Polk and McAllister streets in October 2014.