Availability and Usage: Negligent Operation of Equipment

The transit community bemoaned the ADA requirement to equip every bus with a wheelchair lift, two securement positions, and three-point seatbelt systems to accommodate their users. Similarly, that industry bemoaned the requirement to use this equipment. With flip-up seats offsetting the otherwise loss of seating capacity, none of this equipment translated into a loss of capacity – although the unpredictable increases in running time these passengers have triggered, and the failure of drivers to properly accommodate them for this reason, have served as the underlying causes of a spate of personal injury and class action lawsuits.

Like our transit brethren, many members of the motorcoach industry also accepted these ADA requirements like medicine – kicking, screaming and whining as it went down. However, motorcoach manufacturers did an even better job addressing the capacity issue: Two manufacturers (at least) already offer quick-change track seating systems that permit the re-spacing of seats (to accommodate wheelchairs or reposition the seats after their users alight) in a matter of seconds, while otherwise leaving the seats in their normal positions. Further, many motorcoach purchasers (at least during the initial years of the ADA’s application) have managed to get USDOT to pay for most of this technology (see “Doing the ADA Limbo,” National Bus Trader, April, 2004).

Loses and Profits

Particularly with these technologies and their funding support, transporting wheelchair users has broadened the potential ridership market for motorcoach service: Lest one forget, wheelchair users also have relatives, friends and attendants who often ride with them. So the equation “two-wheelchairs-equals-six-seating-positions” is both exaggerated and naïve: Unless a coach is filled to capacity, transporting a wheelchair user generally means also transporting additional passengers in regular seats.

Similarly naïve is an understanding of the liability associated with the transportation of wheelchair users. While lawsuits involving their travel abound (mostly securement omissions or errors), they need not. In theory, traveling on a bus or coach in a wheelchair should be considerably safer than traveling as an ambulatory passenger:

  1. Wheelchair occupants do not ascend or descend stepwells (many poorly designed)
  2. Wheelchair users do not require the extension of footstools or kneeling devices
  3. Wheelchair users do not require driver assistance up or down the stepwell (which motorcoach drivers are loathe to provide)
  4. Wheelchair users cannot stand or walk around on the coach while it is moving

Of course, ensuring the safety of wheelchair users requires some effort on the part of drivers and management, particularly in the areas of training and monitoring. Still, a safe motorcoach operator has a liability advantage when transporting wheelchair users compared to ambulatory passengers – particularly as 60 percent of the passengers are elderly, and a significant percentage obese (since a full third of the entire U.S. population of all ages is overweight) – a veritable chorus line of potential slip-and-fall victims.

Availability and Use

The genuine problem with both lift platforms and kneeling features – increasingly common and soon-to-be universal on motorcoaches – is the driver’s reluctance to use them. This reluctance may reflect laziness or selfishness, as drivers are reticent to spend precious time that would otherwise accrue to layover or recovery. It may reflect negligent scheduling – for example when schedules are too tight. It may reflect negligent training or monitoring. Or it may simply reflect ignorance. Some examples from the paratransit and transit sectors illustrate the bone-headedness and indifference involved in so many accidents and injuries:

  • A lift-equipped paratransit vehicle was approached by an semi-ambulatory passenger using a walker. Instead of boarding her via the lift, the driver permitted her attendant to lay down a decorative cinderblock (i.e., with holes carved out within it) as a stepstool, and watched as the plaintiff attempted to board via the stepwell. She fell forward, bashed her shin into the edge of the top step, and recoiled by falling backwards out of the van.
  • Another paratransit driver operating a lift-equipped van watched as his semi-ambulatory walker-user fell into the bus.
  • A transit driver compounded his failure to pull his bus to the curb by also failing to engage its kneeling device – a formal requirement for that system under those circumstances. An obese passenger was unable to step down the 14 inches to the ground level, and broke her leg trying.

In some of these cases, the vehicle did not pull up to the curb, a maneuver that would have decreased the step-to-ground height significantly. In other cases, there was no curb to pull up to. Yet all of these vehicles contained either foot stools or kneeling features. Unfortunately, none of their drivers bothered to use them.

These accidents illustrate an important principle that motorcoach industry members will hopefully grasp: Special equipment can prevent a considerable number of incidents for passengers who are not wheelchair users. Nothing prevents a driver from using the lift for any of these other passengers, whether they request it or not. Most obvious of these individuals are semi-ambulatory passengers – those using walkers or canes. Quite frankly, if a passenger is unable to walk or even stand upright on a flat surface, how reasonable is it to expect him or her to ascend or descend a stepwell? Few jurors will fail to grasp this point.

A driver’s discretionary use of this special equipment certainly raises new issues – for example, for whom and under what circumstances should it be deployed. However, and far more importantly, this equipment’s availability represents enormous promise for reducing injuries and liability exposure. Its use may comprise an annoyance for transit drivers, since their vehicles often stop every few blocks, and a single run typically involves scores (or, in some cases, hundreds) of separate pickups and drop-offs. In contrast, with the exception of those coaches deployed in commuter/express service, motorcoaches generally make few stops. Most ambulatory passengers could still board or alight via the front stepwell. However, the driver could assist the few others with more serious needs up or down via the lift – possibly in less time that it would take to safely assist them up or down the stepwell, and without the risk of back injuries to the driver this might entail. After they board, these same individuals could also be seated near the lift – streamlining their corresponding alighting, as well as minimizing the distance and steps between their seats and restroom facilities.

Controlling Level Changes

Now that more transit buses and motorcoaches contain kneeling features, an increasing number of lawsuits are beginning to emerge where drivers compound their failures to pull to the curb by also failing to deploy the appropriate equipment to mitigate the risks their other omission created. No member of the public transportation community would likely argue that this device should be deployed for every passenger irrespective of the level change involved. But using the kneeling device is at least a good idea when the bus or coach does not pull to the curb, and the bottom step lies a foot or more above ground level. Executing this two- to three-second maneuver is a particularly good idea when the passenger is elderly and/or obese, or carrying a baby. It is an even better idea when the handrails are dysfunctional – as many bus and coach handrails are. Given the time and effort involved when failing to deploy the kneeling feature results in an injury, this omission generally costs the defendant $100,000 or more per second of time saved.

Improvements in technology are not double-edged swords. In terms of safety and liability, they are double-edged benefits: Their usage provides extensive opportunities to reduce both injuries and liability exposure. That the failure to use the technology, when prudent and appropriate, may expose an operator to liability does not mean the proverbial sword contains a third edge. It means that its owner failed to sharpen the sword.

Technology and Catastrophe

To anyone who fully understands the transportation lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, buses and coaches belong in the same category as food, water, shelter and clothing. The category is “What We Need and Need Quickly in a Catastrophe” (see “Plans, Preparation and the S Word” in National Bus Trader, November, 2005). A deeper analysis of the public transportation system suggests that motorcoaches are the combined fleet’s aircraft carriers. While many motorcoach characteristics (compared to those of other buses) are obvious – fully-padded reclining seats, restrooms (including their access to water), interior package racks, extensive luggage space and air conditioning – the increasing inclusion of wheelchair lifts and kneeling features on motorcoaches enhances their value in emergency situations even more. Not only can these devices help accommodate the more vulnerable victims of natural or unnatural disasters, but they can facilitate the logistics necessary to support all the passengers once on board. With only a single entrance doorway, the transfer of food, water and medicine, and the elimination of garbage and restroom waste, would be time-consuming and problematic. It would also serve as an invitation to back injuries.

And then there are the fires. The lessons from catastrophic school bus accidents (Carrolton, KY and Alton, TX in the Early Eighties come to mind) led to increases in the number of emergency exits. But motorcoaches are limited to a single door, two roof hatches and a few push-out windows – the last two of which most motorcoach passengers are generally unaware and rarely informed. Even if they were, jumping out the windows might work for schoolchildren – particularly as they typically participate in school bus evacuation drills. But jumping out the windows is not terribly practical for the largely-elderly riders who dominate motorcoach travel.

In one of my most fascinating lawsuits, a minibus conversion caught fire, and its flames engulfed the hood and single, front entrance doorway – making the stepwell unusable for evacuation purposes. While the flash-fire was extinguished moments later, many of the passengers seeing the front stepwell in flames jumped out the windows. One broke his neck. One suspects that the presence of a wheelchair lift, and the driver’s and passengers’ awareness of its availability, could have prevented or lessened the severity of most of these injuries: Even if the passengers had to leap off the platform, the first few alighting could have assisted the rest of them off, or at least tried to catch them or break their falls. This scenario is hardly novel: Helping fellow students down from the floor level is a common component of school bus industry emergency-exit evacuation drills. Yet even without assistance, those evacuating via the wheelchair lift platform and rear door would at least be able to leap off the coach feet-first, if not climb down from it. In a critical emergency, a bus full of passengers can exit from a single door more quickly via a lift-platform (keep in mind it would not have to be lowered, but instead, simply deployed at the floor level) than via a stepwell. Better still, the lift platform could be lowered halfway – providing a less severe transition from floor to ground. Jumping or stepping down from the lift platform may not be the preferred alternative for most evacuation scenarios. But they constitute valuable options. They are particularly handy options when a vehicle bursts into flames.

Sowing and Reaping

When someone spends half a million dollars on a home, local building codes generally require alternative exits. Other codes require sensible stairways and railings. Where the occupants use wheelchairs, still other codes outline accoutrements to accommodate their special needs. Once this stuff is installed, most homeowners, their families and their guests generally use it.

There is no rule I know of that limits one’s use of costly equipment when the structure is mobile. If we want to reap the benefits from the often-dazzling equipment we spend a small fortune to purchase or lease, we should learn to use it, and ensure that our personnel do. As the U.S. legal system so aptly demonstrates, it often costs far more to not use it.

Having great equipment available – even if drivers have to sometimes use it – is not a curse. It is a blessing. As we are so often told, the Lord helps those who help themselves.

Publications: National Bus Trader.