Buying Tomorrow’s Buses Today: Part 7: Illumination and Visibility

This installment of “Buying Tomorrow’s Buses Today” identifies some equipment issues related to exterior and interior lighting, and mirrors. The next installment will address other aspects of enhanced visibility, including windshields, windows, cameras, motion sensors, reflectors, signage and adjustable driver’s seats.

Exterior Lighting

My own night vision is not what it once was. So I paid close attention to a recent study claiming that someone age 50 has roughly half the night vision he or she had at age 25. That study suggested effectively that it was not safe to drive at night over 40 mph. While I am not remotely suggesting the motorcoach industry follow such advice, it does emphasize the extraordinary importance of optimizing exterior lighting. Unfortunately, some options permissible in the European Union (e.g., usages of Xenon and halogen head lamps) are not allowable in parts of North America. Otherwise, within reason and apart from blinding oncoming motorists, the brighter the lights, the safer the driving.

Beyond improved driver visibility in front, a few lighting features rarely if ever installed on motorcoaches are well worth considering:

  • Strobe-light Amber Flashers. State regulations govern these devices on all vehicles. Where they are allowable, buses and coaches containing them (not counting school buses, which already do in many states) must compete with enforcement, emergency, construction and other vehicles that also deploy them. Particularly in operating environments encountering snow, fog or forest-fires, strobe-lights may prevent rear-ending. Finally, even if regulations permit otherwise, do not install red flashers on anything but a school bus.
  • Light-failure Monitors. Light-failure monitors are miniature models of the front and rear caps – monitors common on school buses, and required on them in many states. As these monitors depict all the exterior lights that are on and off, the driver must reconcile these readings with the actual position of the vehicles’ knobs and switches (i.e., whether or not the lights have been physically switched on or off). On long motorcoach trips with hundreds of miles between exterior inspections, knowing a light is inoperative further in advance may prevent both accidents and law enforcement citations. If such devices are not readily available for motorcoaches, this application is worth considering.
  • Curb-side Danger Zone Lights. The entire cone-shaped, curb-side danger zone could be illuminated by a spot light pointing rearward from the position of the curb-side, exterior, rear-view mirror. In addition illuminating the danger zone for the bus driver, this device would “back-light” a pedestrian positioned in the zone who might otherwise be struck by a vehicle passing the bus or coach on the right.
  • Curb-side Rear Safety Lights. “Task lights” mounted to the top of the rear, curb-side fender-well could also illuminate the danger zone around that outside rear tire – the most vulnerable part of this zone for passengers walking alongside the bus or coach, since they might slip beneath it tires before or during a pull-out.

The use of some of these devices has been explored by the pupil transportation community. As with motorcoaches, that community’s vehicles do not contain rear doors. Yet wheel crush accidents are more likely for passengers who, unlike schoolchildren, are supposed to cross behind the bus.

Interior Lighting

The interior lighting I have seen on most buses and motorcoaches is far less than needed, and grossly inferior to what is possible. A few improvements that would be easy to develop, and whose purchasing costs would be minor, include:

  • Overly-bright, Overhead Stepwell Flood Light. While they may reflect current industry standards, the tiny bulbs commonly installed on the sides of stepwells provide a fraction of the light needed. And they do not illuminate the ground surface outside the bus – a surface itself not always illuminated (much less properly, much less when the bus or coach casts this area in shadow). During daytime operations, stepwells are often dramatically darker than the bright sunlit areas from which boarding passengers have just stepped to enter the coach. Current illumination levels are worthless for these conditions. A passenger removing and holding his or her sunglasses to better ascend the stepwell is a passenger who cannot grasp a handrail with that same hand. The solution is a large flood-light – possibly with an “extra-high-beam” setting for daytime operations – positioned over the stepwell. At night, this patch of bright light emanating from the bus or coach might signal, to an oncoming motorist, that a passenger is about to alight.
  • Passenger Aisle Task Lighting. Better and better-directed aisle lighting is particularly important on coaches with restrooms. With the passenger-seat reading light/air conditioning modules common to high-end motorcoaches, when passengers reading, typing or “surfing” late at night step into the aisle to head toward the restroom, they generally step into a significantly darker area – since lighting throughout the coach is generally dimmed to accommodate passengers sleeping, and to isolate the driver from the glare of the interior lights. Similar problems occur when passengers leave the brightly-lit restrooms. Properly-shielded and -aimed aisle lights could improve illumination for passengers (including identifying aisle-side grab handles or seatbacks used to navigate to and from the restroom) while shielding both the driver and seated passengers from most of the glare. Better aisle lighting might also help passengers traversing this dark gauntlet at night to avoid inadvertent elbow-to-the-groin trauma from aisle-seated fellow-passengers.
  • Distinguishable Emergency Exit and Restroom Lighting. In a recent, novel but tragic incident, a supermodel traveling by motorcoach walked toward what she presumably thought was a restroom, pushed open an emergency exit door, and stepped out onto the freeway from her moving coach. It is impossible to speculate on how the inevitable lawsuit stemming from this incident will turn out. But as such incidents enter the industry folklore, the “industry standards” in this area are likely to expand. In lighting and signage, we may soon have to distinguish restrooms from emergency exits even more vividly, even if the distinctions are already obvious to many or most passengers.
  • Exterior Restroom Usage Warning Light. A common sub-scenario of on-board slips-and-falls occurs when drivers do not or cannot coordinate driving maneuvers with passenger movement in the aisles. I have been involved, as a forensic expert, in several incidents where drivers have pulled onto or off freeway ramps, or accelerated, decelerated or braked through toll-booths, while passenger were traversing the aisles. Drivers can at least see passengers entering the aisle from their seats through the interior, rear-view mirror (at least if the aisle is well-lit), and can sometimes adjust their acceleration, deceleration, braking or cornering to match. Yet while drivers may not be able to predict when a passenger is going to arise from a seat, they could predict their emergence from the restroom if they knew it was occupied. The tiniest, small-but-bright bulb and colored-lens – activated when the restrooms are being used – would be easy for the driver to monitor through the interior, rear-view mirror. Further, the light would inform fellow passengers of its use – saving them from walking or standing in the aisle unnecessarily while the restroom is occupied. This device might also double as the restroom’s “distinguishable” light noted above.


In recent years, mirror development has encompassed many noteworthy improvements – even though some have remained largely within the single sectors of the overall public transportation industry for which they were developed. One excellent example of both trends involves school bus mirror systems – although many mirror improvements (e.g., heated mirrors and remote operations) have occurred in other sectors, as well as in the trucking industry. Otherwise, school bus mirror systems are noticeably superior to those on other buses and coaches.

School bus mirror systems have been justified by the passengers’ ages and crossing capabilities, the multiple stops the vehicles typically make, and the unique regulations and practices that apply to motorists when school buses load and unloading passengers. However, motorcoaches deployed in commuter/express and sightseeing service operate in multiple-stop modes. And a full 30 percent of all motorcoach trips are provided to schoolchildren – even though most of this service involves single- or limited-stop operations where the passengers will not be crossing. Just the same, non-school bus operators might consider a few mirror innovations required for newly-manufactured school buses (and as a retrofit matter in some states):

  • Full-size, Convex Side-view Mirrors. Most non-school buses contain convex mirrors, and some form of them is required in virtually all states. But they commonly take the form of small “spot” mirrors (e.g., Velvac), often mounted onto a lower portion of the flat mirror’s surface. The convex, rear-view mirrors on school buses provide much larger images of the lower portions of the cone-shaped danger zones alongside the bus. These enlarged images are particularly important on the curb-side, where passengers walking alongside the bus or coach are vulnerable to wheel-crush accidents as the vehicle pulls away from the stop.
  • Crossover or Crossview Mirrors. Crossover mirrors, mandated by revisions to FMVSS #111 more than two decades ago, are unique creatures of school buses. By distorting the image, these convex lenses can actually depict areas “behind” the plane of the mirror surface, as well as important blind spots of direct visibility through the windshield. While these mirrors were devised largely to address the characteristics of Type C school buses (i.e., buses with a cowl or hood in front of the driver which blocks the view of objects directly in front of the bus), such vehicles are increasingly being deployed in “commercial” duty cycles. While crossover mirrors may bastardize the style of motorcoaches (at least as currently designed), it is important to recognize that passengers crossing in front of school buses are at least supposed to be there. So their crossing is anticipated. Passengers crossing in front of motorcoaches are far less expected – since crossing in front is not the correct “crossing orientation” for this type of bus. Yet it is difficult to argue that a crossing victim’s incorrect crossing orientation was not reasonably foreseeable since crossing orientation (with respect to the type of bus) is incorrect in a large percentage of crossing accidents.
  • Oversized, Convex, Interior, Rear-View Mirrors. These mirrors are becoming increasingly common in all public transportation vehicles. But particularly with their high-back seats, and 30 percent of their passengers being schoolchildren, equipping motorcoaches with the largest, convex, interior, rear-view mirror available makes good sense. Beyond the drivers general need to manage and monitor passengers (apart from restroom usage, drivers must at least keep them in their seats), some form of occupant restraint (i.e., two- or three-point belts) is now required, for large school buses, in seven states. Irrespective of whether or not motorcoaches in these states must contain them as well, student-passengers injured while unbelted could present “gray areas” in liability exposure. More interestingly, among the more than 200 lawsuits in which I have participated as an expert, the third most-common incident scenario has been passenger molestation – mostly by fellow-passengers. Along with cameras, oversized convex, interior, rear-view mirrors may help drivers detect the development of some of these incidents earlier.

Eye-Rolling and Eye-Balling

System and driver negligence is generally more responsible for incidents than is negligence related to vehicles or equipment. Further, in crossing accidents – the largest category of fatalities and serious injuries experienced by school bus passengers, and a large category experienced by transit passengers – the victims are struck by third-party vehicles. However, the bus systems and bus drivers often make the critical errors and omissions identified in lawsuits. Yet few motorists carry enough insurance ($15,000/$30,000 is the requirement in most states) to make it worthwhile for the victim’s attorney to mount a serious lawsuit against them. In contrast, public transportation providers are required to carry a veritable windfall of coverage. In the Land of Lawsuits, deep pockets are magnets for deep trouble.

If you are the victim’s attorney in a society with these values, “Who ya gonna sue?” When you become a defendant, you cannot whine or rant about the unfairness of such realities. Nor can even the safest operator whine or rant about the fact that his premiums cross-subsidize the widespread recklessness and indifference of his competitors at the opposite end of the safety spectrum. Unless and until these dynamics change, it only makes sense to prepare for their consequences.

Insofar as short-term efficiency, it is better to not duplicate features. However, in the Land of Lawsuits, it is far better to overlap than underlap. Particularly on school buses, mirror systems have been designed to fill in the visibility gaps – even if the additional pieces contain some distortion. The reasoning here is that it is better to at least see something you cannot fully or correctly identify than to not see it at all.

Telling it To the Mountains

Having been to Liability Mountain as an expert witness, I have seen the costs associated with incidents where systems and drivers were at fault, as well as where they were not. Complying with regulatory requirements and industry standards goes only so far as a courtroom defense. This is largely because jurors are not familiar with their context or the decades of trade-offs involved in establishing these requirements and standards.

Your attorneys cannot dilute the already-too-complex messages with lectures about perspective and taxes. When an incident occurs, yet requirements and standards appear to fall short, jurors may feel that simply complying with regulatory requirements is not enough. After all, the essence of standards is the concept of “minimum.” Particularly where the victims are elderly, disabled or children, jurors may simply not want to hear about your compliance with industry standards. Instead, as the old folk song goes, you may as well “go tell it to the mountains.”

Freedom is Slavery

As anyone enslaved by, and not in denial about, Microsoft well knows, technology progresses much faster than most of us can absorb it. This August, at a recent school bus industry trade show, one mirror manufacturer introduced a new crossover mirror capable of seeing several times further in front of the bus (and behind the mirror plane) than FMVSS #111 requires. As an option, that mirror includes a miniature camera that photographs the license plates of vehicles that pass the bus while its red flashers and stop arm are engaged. Since the taxpayers refuse to finance the needed regimen of law enforcement officers, we are turning their chores over to Big Brother. But if the little yellow, body-on-chassis school bus contains Big Brother’s safety equipment, and your dazzling, integral motorcoach costing six times as much does not, do not expect to effortlessly explain this disparity to a jury when that same safety feature would likely have mitigated the plaintiff’s injury or demise.

Certain features of school buses, transit buses, passenger rail cars, minibus conversions and other public transportation vehicles are clearly inappropriate for motorcoaches. But this is not true of all of them. It would be a big mistake for a spotted animal to dismiss stripes simply because they are a fellow-animal’s distinguishing features.

Publications: National Bus Trader.