Chameleon Safety and Liability

The regulations and practices which govern passenger safety for most motorcoach, transit, pupil transportation and paratransit services are well-established and clearly-defined. Critical passenger and driver functions covered include boarding and alighting, crossing, loading and unloading, wheelchair securement, passenger securement, and riding seated versus standing. These functions rightfully receive the greatest attention in accident prevention, since they are involved in the vast majority of fatalities and serious injuries.

Executing these functions is far more complex, and far less clearly-defined, when the operating distinctions of motorcoach services become blurred, and assume many characteristics of other modes – or appear to from the perspective of the passengers:

  • Many motor coaches are deployed in “commuter” service – mostly peak-hour-only, Monday-Friday, split shift service between congested cities and their suburbs. To the passengers, however, these services are largely viewed as “express” transit service – a subset of the fixed route transit on which they commonly ride as standees. Even the distinction which the vehicle itself might provide (i.e., coach versus bus) is blurred by the fact that both public transit agencies and private contractors operate both types of vehicles for the same purposes and the same passengers. Further, some vehicles deployed in commuter service are minibus conversions – either with spring suspension systems or air bags “shoehorned” into vehicles not designed to accommodate them. Policies regarding standees is not always clearly defined. When vehicles are overcrowded, such policies are moot. When they are overloaded, they are dangerous.
  • Scheduled or intercity motorcoach service often merges with both tour and commuter service – and sometimes relinquishes its scheduled service characteristics altogether. Saturday morning outbound and Sunday afternoon inbound riders on Manhattan-to-Atlantic City runs are primarily gamblers, whereas passengers traveling on the same vehicles and outbound and inbound routes weekend evenings and mornings are mostly commuters (taking advantage of the low fares subsidized by Atlantic City’s casinos). Interestingly absent from this group are those customers typical of, and accustomed to, scheduled, intercity service – often used to long stretches of rural travel between destinations, and to timing their use of restrooms with stretches where the inertial and centrifugal forces from acceleration, deceleration, turning and braking are minimal, and drivers more accustomed to providing warnings about them. Commuters and short-haul “overnighters” are less cognizant of these correlations and the dangers which accompany them.
  • School children on activity or field trips – especially young ones – may not even know, much less remember, what kind of vehicle they are riding. This reality presents major problems in crossing – particularly for individuals below ages 13-14, who have not yet developed the skills to safely cross streets and negotiate intersections, much less recognize, interpret, appreciate and overcome the risks associated with them. These problems are even worse for K-2 children. School children’s choices and habits are often conditioned by the practices of pupil transportation, and they may be vulnerable to risk to which adult riders are accustomed and minimally exposed. A motorcoach’s onboard restroom may be alluring to school children – not to mention the message it may convey about remaining seated.

The limited number of injuries and fatalities which occur on “hybrid” bus and coach services does not yield enough data from which to draw conclusions about their safety – compared to more “pure” forms of these services. Yet courtrooms and insurance records are clogged with the evidence.

Evolution and Transformation

As motorcoach service evolves yet further, the blurring of modal characteristics is likely to become more elusive and complex. Among them, the next generation of motorcoach services – in all sectors – will also begin to assume many paratransit characteristics, as the ADA is fully implemented, and operators restructure their [soon-accessible] fleets to capture the additional business associated with these markets. From a business perspective. Connecticut-based DATTCO has already demonstrated the profit and growth benefits of deploying accessible vehicles and marketing accessible service. The “disabled segment” of its market grew significantly faster than any other during the recent recession.

The ADA may also provide many unforeseen benefits to the motorcoach industry from a safety and a liability perspective. For example, motorcoach drivers already accustomed to large number of elderly passengers (some of whom are also disabled) will learn new skills. Practices like “spotting” alighting passengers at the bottom of the stepwell may evolve into more pro-active passenger assistance (which will likely change the spatial needs of the stepwell itself). Drivers will become more experienced at, and attuned to, both wheelchair and passenger securement. Their traditional smooth driving will be reinforced, and their skills further refined, by an increased knowledge and awareness of passenger disabilities and vulnerability. Such improvements will naturally improve safety and comfort for all motorcoach passengers.

Publications: National Bus Trader.