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Detroit bus driver kept job through 19 accidents until second fatality

Geraldine Johnson is charged with a moving violation causing death.    (Detroit Police Department/TNS)
By George Hunter The Detroit News

DETROIT — During Geraldine Johnson’s 26-year career as a Detroit Department of Transportation bus driver, she was involved in 19 on-the-job accidents — two of which resulted in fatalities — and was written up multiple times for reckless driving and other infractions, according to personnel files reviewed by The Detroit News.

City officials said a clause in the union contract allowed Johnson to continue driving despite her record.

Now, Johnson, 59, is charged with a moving violation causing death, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, after prosecutors say she ran down 67-year-old Janice Bauer as the Grosse Pointe Park resident crossed a downtown Detroit street on June 2.

Johnson, who is scheduled to appear before 36th District Court Judge E. Lynise Bryant for a Monday pretrial hearing, was fired after Bauer’s death.

Detroit Deputy Mayor Todd Bettison said a provision in the contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union that bars DDOT from disciplining employees who have been off work for more than 18 months prevented Johnson from being fired years ago despite her history of problems. Johnson took almost two years of medical leave after she killed a passenger in 2015, so that record could not be used to discipline or fire her, Bettison said.

“The fact that existing policies were not able to prevent this driver’s second fatal accident is a serious concern for the mayor, and we are exploring potential changes to better prevent such accidents in the future,” Bettison said in a statement.

Johnson’s attorney, Sharon Clark Woodside, said her client is distressed about her second fatal accident.

“Of course, she’s still upset,” Clark Woodside said of Johnson, whose case was delayed for two months until court officials in October approved her request to be declared indigent. “The question is: Was she really at fault? We’re still working on proving that she wasn’t at fault. I need to have an independent expert evaluate the scene itself, but that hasn’t happened yet.”

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 President Schetrone Collier said he watched the video from a camera that was trained on Johnson the morning of the crash that killed Bauer.

“(Johnson) wasn’t distracted, looking at her phone, nothing,” he said. “(Bauer) really came out of nowhere; (Johnson) couldn’t see her because there was a blind spot.

“Miss Johnson is very short of stature, and in some of the buses she’d get, there’d be blind spots,” Collier said. “I was close to filing a (Americans with Disabilities Act) complaint on (DDOT) because they wouldn’t do anything about it. I had been asking them to put in mirrors that have cameras on them that would eliminate those blind spots for people of short stature. If we’d have had those, I think (Bauer) would be alive today.”

Melvin Barkley, DDOT’s assistant director of operations, replied in a statement: “A review of DDOT records and correspondence with the ATU reveals no questions raised or concerns expressed by the Union regarding side mirrors obstructing the line of sight for (drivers) regardless of stature.”

Members of Bauer’s family couldn’t be reached for comment.

Contract clause

When Johnson hit Bauer on June 2 as she walked across Congress at Griswold at 7:39 a.m., it marked the second fatality on the bus driver’s record. On April 4, 2015, Johnson killed passenger Joey Davis by running him over while he was taking his bicycle off the rack at the front of the coach. Davis’ family sued the city and settled for $4.5 million.

Johnson took leave the day of the accident and was never disciplined. The only DDOT response in the personnel files reviewed by The News was a supervisor’s recommendation: “Operator should observe (their) surrounding(s) while driving coach.”

Mayor Mike Duggan’s spokesman John Roach said DDOT officials were unable to discipline or fire Johnson for the fatal accident or anything else she’d done before 2015 because she’d taken time off after her first fatal accident and didn’t return to work until nearly two years later.

“This was something the mayor asked to be looked into, and the key finding was that the collective bargaining agreement is a barrier because it doesn’t allow the city to look back more than 18 months into a driver’s record for disciplinary purposes,” Roach said in a statement.

“Her previous fatal accident was in early 2015, and she didn’t return to work until 2017, over 18 months from the accident date,” Roach said. “So the city was prohibited under the bargaining agreement from using that fatal 2015 accident as the reason to block her from returning to her position.

“To be able to do a more complete consideration of a driver’s record for discipline would require a change in the collective bargaining agreement, and that would require approval from the union,” Roach said.

Johnson’s driving issues continued after she returned to work in 2017, including a 2021 incident in which she drove her bus into an empty car that was parked on the shoulder of Interstate 96. But Bettison said that incident wasn’t a fireable offense, and because Johnson’s record had been effectively wiped clean following her lengthy 2015-17 absence, the 2021 incident was recorded as her “first preventable accident.”

“Pursuant to DDOT’s accident policy, which is structured off the collective bargaining agreement, if a collision does not involve an injury or major property damage but is preventable, then a written reprimand and retraining order must be issued,” Bettison said in a statement. “So the January 2021 incident was not a fireable offense because it didn’t involve an injury, fatality, or major property damage.”

The deputy mayor added: “The January 2021 incident was deemed her first preventable accident because the DDOT accident policy and CBA only allow for a limited lookback on accident records for such disciplinary purposes.”

During Johnson’s arraignment in 36th District Court after hitting Bauer, Magistrate Dawn White said the defendant had been involved in eight crashes involving her personal vehicle or a bus since the 2015 fatal accident.

Union local president Collier said he planned to contest Johnson’s firing by arguing that she hadn’t been disciplined for the 2015 fatal incident. He said the lack of discipline calls into question why DDOT officials fired Johnson after Bauer was killed.

But Collier said Johnson didn’t feel she could continue driving after the second fatality and that she asked the union to drop the planned attempt to contest her firing.

“I know Miss Johnson personally; she’s a beautiful person who is absolutely devastated by this,” Collier said. “She was devastated by the first (fatality); she couldn’t return to work for nearly two years because of how it affected her mental health. So after the second (fatality), she said there was no way she could continue as a bus driver, and she asked us to just drop it.”

The union president added that 19 vehicle accidents during a 26-year-career “isn’t out of the ordinary at all. If you’re on the road for years, you’re going to get into accidents. The question is, how many of those were her fault?”

According to Johnson’s personnel file, DDOT officials determined she’d been responsible for seven accidents, while she claimed other drivers were at fault for the other 13 crashes.

In four other incidents not involving vehicles — two of which happened after Johnson had returned to work following the 2015 fatal accident — passengers were injured after Johnson drove over a speed bump, made a sharp turn and hit the brakes suddenly, her record shows. There is no indication in the files of Johnson being disciplined or required to attend further training following those incidents.

Hours after Bauer’s death, The News sent a public records request to the Detroit Law Department seeking Johnson’s personnel and driving records. The documents were not provided until November.

The city still has not complied with a separate request, also sent immediately after the June 2 fatal incident, seeking information about other DDOT drivers’ safety records and other data from the transportation department. Law Department officials said the delay is caused by a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests and limited staff to process thousands of applications. City officials said they’re working to provide the information sought by The News in the second FOIA request.

‘A dangerous situation’

Johnson was hired in December 1996 as a transportation equipment operator making $8.82 per hour. On her job application, she said she’d had her driver’s license revoked for not paying a ticket. After training, Johnson began driving in March 1997.

Within a few years, the issues started.

From 2000 to 2005, Johnson was involved in five accidents, including an incident referred to in an Oct. 14, 2003 evaluation that discussed “one accident where defensive driving techniques were not followed or one rule violated.” No other details of the crash were provided.

Johnson was cited for reckless driving after a May 20, 2005, incident on 8 Mile near Hoover in which she “cut another car off, causing (the) driver of (the) car to go into other traffic,” according to a DDOT report. Her supervisor wrote at the bottom of the report: “Operator was instructed on safe driving.”

On May 15, 2008, Johnson was driving on Northland near Greenfield when she sideswiped a parked Dodge Neon as she tried to squeeze her bus past the vehicle. She was required to attend additional training.

Johnson was again cited for reckless driving on Dec. 9, 2013, after she cut off a motorist while driving on Anthony Wayne Drive. In the incident report, a supervisor wrote: “The operator was instructed on safe driving. This operator’s work performance will be monitored. We apologize for this unpleasant incident.”

On April 4, 2015, the day of the Davis fatal accident, Johnson took time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. She didn’t return to work until March 7, 2017.

On Oct. 17, 2017, officials with Detroit’s Employee Services Division sent Johnson a memo approving her request for more time off. Her redacted medical condition “may cause you to be absent one to five times per month; at two hours to three days per episode,” the memo said.

Johnson was temporarily assigned as a security guard until she returned to driving buses on May 21, 2018. According to a Detroit Human Resources Department form changing her job status, “Employee met the minimum entrance qualifications and was deemed qualified through the Department Qualifying process. The employee was selected from an eligible roster.”

Less than two months after being reinstated as a bus driver, Johnson was involved in an incident on July 7, 2018, while driving northbound on Washington at Michigan.

“A lady claim(ed) I hit her,” Johnson wrote. “I did not hit any car. … (T)ransit police came to the (scene). (N)o evidence was found. (T)hey did call DPD (which) came out and said it was under investigation (but) they found no evidence.”

A supervisor whose signature is illegible wrote, “Person (alleges) operator hit car. DPD … on scene found no evidence of accident(.) (O)perator was returned to service.”

There’s no other mention of the incident in Johnson’s personnel file.

On Sept. 10, 2018, DDOT issued Johnson a violation for making an illegal U-turn at Warren and Cadillac on Detroit’s east side with a bus full of passengers. Written comments at the bottom of the violation form were redacted in the copy the city provided to The News.

Johnson wrote in a July 30, 2019, report that while she was driving her bus on Warren near Greenfield: “A car changing lane(s) side swipe(d) the bus and continue(d) to drive away.”

On Nov. 18, 2019, Johnson wrote that she was driving on Larned near Chene when she hit a speed bump, prompting a female passenger to “claim she hit her head. I didn’t see anything. … ems came to (the scene and the passenger) went to (the) clinic.”

A month later, as Johnson drove on Gratiot near Hickory, she wrote that she “hit (the) brake hard at (a) stop and a lady fell out of (the) seat (and) hurt her … right hand. Dispatch was called (and medics) arrived on (scene).”

On Jan. 14, 2021, Johnson was driving her bus westbound on I-96 near Grand Blvd. “when she struck a vehicle that was partially parked on the shoulder of the (road) and in the lane in which the coach was traveling,” according to a Feb. 10, 2021, Corrective Action Form written by a supervisor. “This caused major damage to the vehicle as well as the coach. No injuries were reported.”

Johnson was disciplined with a written reprimand and given three days of retraining.

Although Collier said the union has dropped its protest against Johnson’s firing, he insisted she was “a great employee.”

“DDOT has never fired someone for being involved in fatalities,” said Collier, a bus driver for 33 years who said the last fatal incident he could recall involving a DDOT driver was Johnson’s 2015 accident.

“This whole thing has been just horrible,” Collier said. “I’m very sorry that woman (Bauer) passed. I pray for her family. I pray for Miss Johnson, too. There are no winners in this case.”