Generally, this extended column presents safety and liability scenarios which motorcoaches typically experience. Such experience is apropos, since motorcoach services are often maligned – mostly for a rare handful of serious accidents. Yet apart from bargain fares, its outstanding safety record is probably the motorcoach industry’s most pronounced feature. So, for a change, this column will identify the types of public transportation accidents and incident scenarios which motorcoach services do not have.
Flashpoints of Liability
While catastrophic accidents and serious collisions receive the most attention, the frequency of litigation suggests that three accident/incident scenarios are far more common to public transportation services:
- Wheelchair and Passenger Securement. This scenario’s frequency is surprising because such a small fraction of public transportation riders use wheelchairs. However, every other seat used by passengers is bolted to the floor according to strictly-defined NHTSA requirements (FMVSS). In contrast, wheelchairs must be pro-actively secured – which takes not only time, but knowledge, practice and effort. A litany of factors also compromise what should be simple and mandatory procedures: Among the more than 30 wheelchair securement-related law suits in which I have been involved, the vehicle was almost always running behind schedule. And in many cases, the securement devices and/or the space surrounding them were inaccessible or insufficient. Compounding these problems, drivers who fail to secure wheelchairs often fail to also secure their occupants into the chairs. Spatial problems are being addressed noticeably better by motorcoach manufacturers than others, particularly with track seating systems. Further, the limited number of wheelchair occupants using motorcoaches, the single-destination nature of most trips (commuter-express services excepted), and the ample recovery time at the end of most runs combine to reduce the frequency of securement episodes, and the time, stress, tedium and frustration often associated with them.
- Crossing. Crossing is the Achilles Heel of both school bus and transit services: Not only do schoolchildren and adults sometimes cross in the wrong place for their respective buses, but motorists approaching them either receive the wrong “signals” or disregard them. Because most victims are struck by a vehicle other than the bus, these “indirect” accidents are grossly undercounted in public transportation-related accident databases (FARS, GES). Motorcoach services are almost immune from such incidents either because they make limited stops (rarely discharging on streets), or because those services which make multiple stops (e.g., commuter-express) are rarely ridden by children.
- Molestation and Assault. Passenger rape and molestation (by both drivers and fellow-passengers) on complementary paratransit and special education services, where victims are often mentally-retarded or physically disabled (or both), is an epidemic similarly excluded from transportation data bases. No job is better suited for a rapist than providing demand-responsive transportation to vulnerable clients with little credibility. The failure to properly monitor these services permits drivers to easily isolate the victims of their choice. Motorcoach services do not (or rarely) encounter such problems because most passengers travel only in groups and, otherwise, this mode is rarely used to transport these vulnerable clients in groups by themselves. But as recent experiences in the U.S. and abroad have clearly demonstrated, neither motorcoach passengers nor drivers are immune to violence.
Less Frequent Scenarios
Other common public transportation accident/incident scenarios are equally rare for motorcoach services, even thought they do occasionally occur:
- On-Board Slips-and-Falls. These incidents are relatively infrequent on motorcoaches because, with the exception of some commuter-express services, they do not carry standees. Even so, conditioned largely by transit experiences, many adults have the bad habit of rising just before reaching their stops – at the vulnerable moment where deceleration and braking coincide. Then there are restrooms – and the often ill-timed meanderings about the passenger compartment they may induce. Motorcoach passengers develop bad habits – like lining up to use restrooms – from air travel experiences. But motorcoach drivers often fail to monitor and control these on-board movements, failing to confine them to constant-speed, straight-road trip segments, where inertial and centrifugal forces are usually minimal.
- Overloading and Priority Treatment Violations. Unlike transit buses – which contain side-facing seats mounted over wheel well positions, and no seatbacks or barriers between many of them and the forward-facing seats directly behind them – motorcoaches contain only fully-padded, compartmentalized, forward-facing, high-back seats, usually with armrests. And with only seated passengers, limited stops, and the custom of not moving the coach until all passengers are seated, even the 60% of motorcoach passengers who are elderly present few safety problems of this type. Further, with double-rear axles and no standees, suspension systems are rarely overloaded.
- Stop Selection and Intersection Placement. Transit and pupil transportation services experiencing crossing accidents and incidents are constantly second-guessed for stop selection and intersection placement. Because most motorcoach passengers do not cross at the stops (commuter-express and rural intercity services excepted), and because motorcoaches generally operate only between limited, well-selected stops, these services are generally immune from such scenarios – other than where driver error intercedes.
- Schedule Adherence. Unlike transit, general education school bus and (particularly) demand-responsive services (i.e., paratransit and special education school bus), motorcoach schedules are rarely too tight. And except for selected intercity services, drivers generally have long layovers at the ends of their runs. As a result, running late on one trip segment or run rarely makes the driver late for the next one. So incentives to accelerate, decelerate or turn at excessive rates of speed are minimal. Of course, the same is true for incentives to speed or tailgate, yet speeding and tailgating occur frequently – from direct sources like passenger and tour agency pressure, and driver impatience and greed (i.e., to creating more layover time or generating bigger tips), to indirect sources like compliance with Hours-of-Service regulations (which limit driving time but not mileage).
- Collisions. Collisions are a significant problem in transportation services which deploy relatively small vehicles – such as paratransit, special education and shuttle services. But the enormous mass of motorcoaches relative to most vehicles with which they might collide renders passenger fatalities and serious injuries rare. Illustrating this principle, catastrophic bus and coach accidents often involve heavy-duty trucks or even freight trains. Other than when colliding at high speeds, large buses and coaches often “brush other vehicles aside,” and generally absorb or dissipate the crash forces otherwise transferred to passengers in lighter vehicles.
- ADA Compliance and Micromanagement. The provision of demand-responsive services is exponentially more complex than any type of fixed route service. As a result, paratransit services were particularly vulnerable to the complexity which ADA requirements unleashed on them. Combined with socio-economic factors which have suppressed drivers’ wages on services which largely created via competitive contracting, and required by un-funded mandates, many paratransit operations have evolved into holocausts of micromanagement and incompetence. Because of the nature of service, the limited proportion of passengers likely to be disabled, and the independence and leadership at the driver level bred by trips terminating far from storage facilities and radio contact, motorcoach services experience far fewer problems of this type. But readers beware: For the motorcoach industry, the ADA is still young.
- Wheelcrushes. Particularly in icy conditions, transit and school bus passengers walking alongside the vehicle before boarding or after alighting are apt to slip beneath the bus, and if unnoticed, get crushed when the vehicle pulls forward. Some exterior rear-view transit mirrors are so negligently positioned (some are even mounted to the door instead of the body!) that the open front door blocks the drivers’ view of the danger zone surrounding the curb-side rear tires. Why vastly-superior, FMVSS-certified school bus exterior mirror systems are not required on transit buses is a mystery. Motorcoach manufacturers, purchasers and operators beware and be forewarned.
Occasionally, these problems coincide and compound one another. In a recent case where a motorcoach employee was injured trying to catch a disabled passenger falling down a stepwell, the passenger was a wheelchair occupant whose chair was stored below – instead of the motorcoach being wheelchair-accessible to begin with – which the ADA required since the coach was providing feeder service to an intercity passenger rail station.
Consolidation and Focus
With a rarity of accidents and incidents of so many types, motorcoach operators and manufacturers have the luxury of focusing on a handful of scenarios which remain problematic:
- Boarding/Alighting. Exacerbated by stepwells often too narrow to accommodate it, the assistance needed to help many passengers alight is rarely provided satisfactorily. With 60 percent of motorcoach passengers elderly, the practice of drivers positioning themselves at the bottom of the stepwell, and offering an arm, is simply not good enough – even if it is the industry standard. Irregular stepwell designs – such as “spiral staircases,” trapezoidal step treads, or dissimilar tread depth and riser heights from step to step – contribute significantly to the difficulty many passengers have boarding and alighting, and to the difficulty of drivers assisting them. Alighting incidents are compounded by poor stop selection and/or bus positioning.
- Window Retention. Window size and retention should not be a major problem for vehicles which can generally pass FMVSS #220 (roof-crush/rollover protection) as an afterthought. Unfortunately, it remains one, largely because of the forces generated in the high-speed rollovers which typically accompany catastrophic motorcoach accidents or incidents. The concern of NHTSA, FMCSA and NTSB about this problem is warranted. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of the motorcoach industry, and its promise of viewing panoramic scenery, has led to a dangerous trade-off between safety and beauty.
- Fatigue. Just as crossing is the bane of transit and pupil transportation services, fatigue is the bane of motorcoach operations. While enormous advances have been made at the vehicle level – ergonomic drivers’ compartments, tilting/telescopic steering columns, one-piece oversized windshields, halogen headlamps, high-technology mirror systems, motion sensing and accident avoidance systems, ABS brakes, among many others – parallel advances at the driver level have not only not materialized, but driver safety may have actually declined.
Trials and Braggadocio
My thinking is that it is far better to have a few large problems than a litany of small ones Of course, it is also true that one must pick battles large enough to matter, but small enough to win. Some of the industry’s problems which remain are sizeable. Similarly, their roots (not the subject of this article) are both firm and entrenched. But far more importantly, they are solvable.
Balancing all this, harbingers and critics of motorcoach service alike would be well reminded of the considerable range and diversity of public transportation-related accidents and incidents which motorcoach services rarely or never experience. Safety does not always have to be perceived as a trade-off for comfort. When one considers all the elements, motorcoach safety is comfort.