The afternoon of May 31, 2008, a vigorous 95-year-old named Alice Mathas spent hours walking around South Beach with her son Paul. Around 7:45 the pair boarded a Miami-Dade bus headed back to their apartment in Bal Harbour.
They didn't make it. As Alice started down the aisle of the crowded bus, the driver pumped the accelerator, and the tiny nonagenarian went crashing forward.
The bus driver, Faydra Cooper, had already racked up a worrying history during five years as a county bus driver. Among others things, she had been cited three times for preventable accidents and once for squatting next to her seat and urinating on the bus floor. She was reprimanded on several occasions and suspended once, but still allowed to get behind the wheel. After the incident, Paul Mathas says, his mom has never been the same.
"[Cooper] should never have been driving," he says. "She should have been fired a long time ago."
The incident illustrates a larger pattern: In Miami-Dade County, home of the largest bus system in the state, bus-related injuries are frequent, bad drivers continue working, and the transit agency routinely skirts responsibility.
A New Times review of Miami-Dade Transit safety records shows that in the first eight months of 2014, county buses hit pedestrians and bicyclists seven times in accidents that were deemed "preventable." Ninety-seven passengers fell while riding, boarding, or exiting buses, and another 56 were otherwise injured. Twenty-seven passengers fell or were injured in March alone.
The descriptions of the passenger incidents raise serious questions about safety on even routine trips. The transit agency wouldn't release the names of injured passengers despite a public records request and months of negotiation, but a registry of the reports describes incidents where a passenger broke the bus' front windshield after a sudden stop, an elderly man's arm got stuck in the front doors, and a woman was hurt when other passengers scrambled toward the exit after seeing the bus emit heavy black smoke.
"They don't care what happens to you," 69-year-old Cristina Lorens, a frequent bus passenger, says of Miami-Dade Transit. "Your fate is sort of in their hands, but as far as they're concerned, you don't exist."
Last December 15, Lorens, who uses a walker because of her severe arthritis, was on her way to the food court at Aventura Mall when the bus she was riding took a 90-degree turn at high speed "and everything went flying," she remembers.
Lorens was sitting facing the aisle. Her bags and the walker went airborne, and when she instinctively leaned forward to catch them, she was also sent flying, landing on her left shoulder and knee. "I was very dizzy," she said. "[There was] bleeding on the elbows and the knees."
As Lorens lay splayed out, the bus continued rolling. "Hey! Hey!" she remembers yelling. "I'm on the floor!" The driver, whom Lorens describes as a slim young woman, finally stopped the bus. But instead of calling for medical help, the driver put on gloves and tried to pick up Lorens herself. Lorens was dazed, frazzled, and in agony. She didn't want the driver to touch her. After several minutes, she pulled herself up using the seat and exited the bus.
"Then [the driver] took off like a bat out of hell," she recalls.
Lorens still suffers from neck and shoulder pain from the fall and sometimes can't even move her arm. In the weeks after the injury, she says, she tried numerous times to obtain video of the incident, only to be repeatedly dodged by the transit agency. (Many buses are equipped with cameras.) Finally, the county stopped answering her and her lawyer's inquiries altogether, she says. "They just give you a runaround."