STN global correspondent Anson Stewart returns with a story of a January bus crash that occurred as he was traveling and reporting in Panama. He discusses bus and road safety in the Central American country.
Racing each other to pick up more passengers, the old school buses in Panama City collide with alarming frequency. One particularly horrific crash, which injured nearly three dozen people, occurred on the Cinta Costera in January, 2010. Here is a translation of excerpts of an article about the event:
Transit: Race Leaves More than 30 Injured Panic on the Coastal Beltway
Oh my God! The shout was followed with alarmed screams of the more than 60 passengers aboard a Panama Viejo bus, which rolled over several times as crushed sheet metal crunched over the hard pavement. Out of the completely overturned vehicle climbed men, women, and children, some bleeding, others in pain, and the rest in hysterics. Thirty-five injured was the final count, among them 10 [were] seriously injured and two infants.
It was about 10:40 a.m. yesterday, Sunday, when the vehicular tragedy occurred. The Panama Viejo bus, license plate B-3388, expired since 2003, was racing with another Panama Viejo bus, which fled the scene. During the race the young driver lost control and ended up crashing into a lamp pole. The bus destroyed the signs, literally flew and spun in the air, fell 20 meters away from the impact, and ended up facing in the opposite direction. People escaped from the emergency door and the front on their own, but several passengers were trapped inside the vehicle. A young man’s right arm was trapped between the pavement and the heavy bus; more than fifteen soldiers were able to move the diablo rojo to free him.
Tears, pain and blood – the scene was sad. The injured, trembling in panic, sat among the steps that are used daily by dozens of children for fun, waiting this time for the help of paramedics. Most victims were women.
The driver of the vehicle, Elías Eliecer Guerra Singh, 20, was unhurt in the accident. He is not licensed to drive public transport, only private cars. In addition, his age is not adequate to drive that kind of public transport.
The second bus involved was located hidden in Panama Viejo, where it was impounded.
With such graphic and sensational media reports about diablo rojo crashes, it’s no wonder the government is making the implementation of Metrobus such a priority. At a November event with the first of the newly delivered buses, the presidential minister made the ambitious claim that there would be zero diablos rojos in the city by August, 2011. When questioned about the seating capacity of the new Volvo buses, he replied “The important thing is not to go seated, the problem is to go safely, in a comfortable and trustworthy manner.” Crashes like the ones above only heighten the government’s ability to replace the existing system and eliminate the existing drivers. Metrobus drivers will not be competing for fares, so there should be little incentive for them to drive at such high speeds.
Maybe Panama City’s congestion is another cause of speeding; perhaps drivers release their road rage, pent up from hours of sitting in traffic jams, by driving at excessive speeds if any space opens up. If the traffic is so bad that no space for a cathartic momentum binge opens up, then defeated bus drivers sometimes give up, tell everyone to get off, turn around, and go home (as my bus driver did one night when I was coming back from Santa Librada).
Luckily, my experiences riding (and driving) Panama Viejo buses were much safer. Luís, a friend who works as a conductor on a Panama Viejo bus, knew Elías Eliecer Guerra Singh (along with many of the other Panama Viejo drivers) and even showed me some cell-phone pictures of his bus before the crash.
I was, however, involved in one minor collision. One afternoon, riding a Vía España bus from Via Veneto to Plaza Cinco de Mayo, we were caught behind another bus that was loading. After some ineffectual honking, our frustrated driver finally pulled out into the other lane and started to speed down the street. The bus that had been loading, not wanting to fall behind and lose out on passengers further down the street, lurched off and the race (regata in Spanish) was on. As the drivers raced, someone on our bus yelled “parada (stop),” and our driver had to pull over to let her off. He misjudged the speed of the bus to his right, cut it off, and, with a loud bang, clipped its front bumper with his rear one. It was clear that settling the incident would take a while, so we all filed off the bus, not paying any fare to the sheepish driver and heading up the street to find another bus.
STN's Stewart is a graduate of Swarthmore College and a recipient of a 2010 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a grant to study abroad. Stewart's project is "School Bus Migrations: Recycling Transit in the Global South." Follow his blog and see more photos from his journey.