MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Brian Taylor is one of thousands handicapped riders who relies on Miami-Dade’s Special Transportation Service.
But recently, he said, an experience onboard a van left him traumatized.
“I now know what a baby getting locked in a car must feel like,” Taylor said. “I was telling these people, ‘Just break the door, break the door’.”
Taylor, who suffers from cerebral palsy and can’t walk or stand on his own, said he was trapped inside a special transportation van for 28 minutes.
The van’s driver left his key in the ignition of the running van. His door shut and ultimately all the doors were closed and locked. Taylor sat on his motorized scooter, which was tied to the floor of the van, was left inside.
Taylor called 911, but the operator was kept on hold trying to reach to the transit company’s call center.
Ten minutes pass, 20 minutes pass. The driver presses his hands against the window — no one turns up with a key or a solution. Taylor also called Miami-Dade County Transit, which oversees STS (Special Transportation Services). The county entity is responsible for the fleet of vehicles that transport some 30,000 men, women and children a year.
Hugh Chen, the county’s transportation deputy director, watched with CBS4 News Chief Investigator Michele Gillen the van’s video that captured Taylor’s August 23rd incident.
“When you see it what is troubling in there to you?” Gillen asked.
“The whole incident is unfortunate. The whole incident. What’s important now to me is that this doesn’t happen again,” Chen said.
This incident was just the latest filed by Taylor with the county. Weeks before a different driver left his key in a running van, which ended up in drive and began to roll until the driver could get back behind the wheel.
It was a series of complaints that led CBS4 News to investigate the STS system six months ago.
That’s when a new contract, approved by the county commission, went into effect with a company called Transportation America.
Angela Aracena is the director of adult day services for Easter Seals in South Florida. She said some STS vans take hours to arrive, a hazard for the elderly who need medications and can’t be left without caretakers.
“My problem is the clients should not be the victim,” Aracena said. “We have older adults that get picked up here two hours later and three hours later than they are supposed to be picked up.”
Yes, that’s hours late.
“I can tell you what excuses I am being given. The van broke, or there was an accident, or the driver came and the client wasn’t there. There will be a van there in 15 minutes, 15 minutes later, there will be a van there in 15 minutes. And this goes on for hours,” she said. “We’ve had clients that have been dropped off at the wrong address, our clients all of them have memory impairment.”
County officials are aware of those complaints.
“We’ve received complaints about passengers being on vehicles for an extended period of time and certainly that is a concern to us,” Chen said.
Thousands of county complaints were reviewed by CBS4 News. Complaints include drivers described as ” extremely rude,” “drives like a maniac” and “client is terrified of this driver.”
Others question their training. One complaint alleged “the passenger had a seizure in the van and the driver did not stop.”
Chen says the county is looking into complaints especially those filed since the new contract.
“I think definitely the late trips the length passengers are in the vehicles is certainly a concern,” Chen said.
CBS4 News watched the video of Brian Taylor locked in the van and wanted to know, ‘What’s being done to prevent it from happening again?’
“The mistake is that the door got locked. So to prevent this, they will leave the vehicle on, they will leave the air conditioning running but the driver’s window will be lowered so that they will have access into the vehicle,” Chen said.
Gillen asked, “But the drivers can’t carry a separate key in case of emergency?”
“That’s a possible solution also,” Chen said.
CBS4 News requested to speak to Transportation America about the solution as described by the county and the concerns we’ve uncovered. Our request for an on camera interview was declined. CEO Zev Naiditch said the company’s policy prohibits television interviews. He would only agree to speak with us off camera.
On Taylor getting locked in the van? “It was an unfortunate event,” Naiditch said.
On the new policy of drivers keeping their windows down? “That was a stop-gap measure.” Now, he said, the company says the best thing to do “is disable the automatic lock.”
Overall, Naiditch said, “the number of complaints is lower than what is allowed in the county approved contract.”
Brian Taylor said he doesn’t know what to expect every time he boards an STS vehicle, which is every weekday for work as a veteran Department of Corrections employee. To provide for his family today, he has no option but to take these vans. He now carries a vehicle escape tool in case, he said, he gets trapped again.