Some things in life defy classification. With poor reading skills or blurry vision, one could easily mistake “motorcoach” for “miscellaneous.” So too could an excellent reader with perfect vision. Only it might not be a mistake; just an illusion. Motorcoach service is not so much a chameleon as it is a blur. This reality has enormous consequences for safety, and even stronger implications for liability.
All Things to All People
Most public transportation modes have distinct vehicles, passengers and service characteristics. In contrast, motorcoach services encompass and overlap every other public and private transportation mode’s passengers, and deploy many of their vehicles. The services themselves are often indistinguishable:
- An estimated 60 percent of motorcoach trips are provided to elderly passengers – including many with a range of disabilities. Particularly with increasing compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, motorcoach service is beginning to resemble accessible transit and complementary paratransit services.
- Roughly 30 percent of motorcoach trips are provided to schoolchildren – mostly on “field” or “activity” trips, many of which are often provided with school buses, by both school districts and private contractors. The safety needs of these passengers are so important that the FMCSA recently issued proposed rulemaking to gauge the propriety of applying the FMCSR to public-sector school bus providers operating across state lines. (Private-sector operators doing this are already subject to these regulations.)
- A large segment of motorcoach service delivers peak-hour, week-day-only commuter/express service – operated by both public agencies and private contractors, and deploying a mix of motorcoaches, transit buses and body-on-chassis minibus “conversions.” The presence of standees correlates more with operating agency type – mostly because public agency “express” service comprises one of its three generic forms of transit – than vehicle type or suspension system. The line between chaos and regulation is largely definitional: Before the City “legitimized” them, the 5,000 jitney vehicles operating illegally in the New York metropolitan area outnumbered the City’s entire bus fleet.
- Motorcoaches operate in an array of amorphous airport, hotel and train shuttle services – which collectively include vehicles ranging from the smallest minivans to 45-foot motorcoaches. Trips range from short-hop terminal connections to long-haul, feeder services between outlying, unmanned rail and bus stations, and their major terminals. One of the few patterns within this almost endless variation is the fact that the worst-equipped vehicles, operating in the most frequent stop-and-go environments, are the most likely to permit standees – not to mention their unsecured, on-board luggage.
- Many motorcoaches shift from one mode to another, from run to run, often on the same shift: Coaches traveling between urban areas and gambling meccas provide inbound commuter service in the early morning, and outbound tour service to hotels and casinos on the return trip. Unlike express transit riders using buses provided by public agencies, and subsidized by taxpayer revenues, these “reverse-commute” tourist and peak-hour commuter trips are subsidized by gambling casinos.
- Apart from one being subsidized, the operating distinctions between commuter service and scheduled/intercity service are minor, distinguishable only by departure and arrival times, number of stops, and travel times between them. The vehicles, drivers and route characteristics are virtually identical – with the exception of rest stops. Along the way, both types of service are likely to experience long stretches of monotonous, un-signalized, well-maintained, high-speed thoroughfares, bumper-to-bumper stop-and-go traffic, and narrow, circuitous, inner-city streets.
Regulation, Safety and Liability
Trying to regulate this undulating, overlapping spectrum of all-of-the-above services is like playing Where’s Waldo in the dark, at sea, in a bad storm. Not only does this moving target involve different vehicles, passengers and trip purposes, but the range and variety of trip lengths and travel times translates into an almost endless variety of work shifts.
In the courtroom, motorcoach service is a spotted zebra – or whatever else one makes of it. With fewer distinguishing features than other public transportation modes, and no way to even distinguish some forms of motorcoach service from others – much less from many non-motorcoach services – its colors are often defined by whomever holds the crayons – or the jury’s attention. Yet motorcoach service is almost always subject to the highest standard of care, for which “common carriers” are held responsible – regardless of operating role, duty cycle, passenger type, fare payment mechanism, vehicle or driver. Correlating company and driver responsibilities with those of a service which a given motorcoach happens to resemble, at the specific moment an incident occurs, is like trying to determine whether a submarine with screen doors is a house or a car.
Despite all this, the motorcoach industry’s safety record is practically indistinguishable from that of transit or pupil transportation – services with much narrower and more clearly-defined roles and responsibilities. Three things appear to account for this phenomenon, unscientifically speaking: (a) relatively new, highly-sophisticated, expensive vehicles with luxury features, (b) experienced ownership and management, and (c) experienced drivers:
- Despite some other buses’ worthy special features and accommodations – like school bus conspicuity, loading/unloading laws and practices, accessories like emergency flashers, stop arms and crossing control arms, and forward-facing, compartmentalized seats – motorcoaches contain leading-edge, top-of-the-line safety and comfort features: Monocoque construction, pneumatic suspension, and ABS brakes were standard motorcoach features long before most members of some transportation communities were even aware of them. When they became aware of their value for marketing purposes, most motorcoach manufacturers subjected their vehicles to school bus-required FMVSS roof-crush/rollover (#301) and side impact (#220) tests almost as an afterthought; most coaches passed muster without undergoing any design or engineering changes whatsoever.
- Many motorcoach companies are not only family-owned businesses, but multi-generational family-owned businesses. These structures have even been maintained in large part throughout the enormous wave of recent consolidations, whereby member companies retain their individual identities and management, while making use of a larger support network. Motorcoach owners and managers didn’t just learn about transportation in school. They learned about it at the breakfast table, in the bathtub, and during on-site babysitting sessions.
- Experienced drivers may be the industry’s greatest strength – if not its most striking characteristic. Recent surveys, combined with anecdotal observations, suggest that the average or median age of motorcoach drivers is around 60. To the degree many of these individuals had other former jobs, they were often driving jobs – commonly involving the operation of heavy-duty trucks. Many of the skills which new school bus, transit and paratransit drivers must learn – like defensive driving and vehicle handling – are almost intuitive to many motorcoach drivers.
When a motorcoach passenger is injured or killed, how often does this context enter the litigation fray – much less influence the court’s or jury’s decision-making? How often does this context enter, much less characterize, outside-industry news coverage of motorcoach events or accidents? How often is this context acknowledged in safety studies or accident investigations? My money is riding on “never.” If you know of any exceptions, please share them with me.
Higher Standards of Care
As noted, motorcoach services must compete – in terms of both safety and liability – with other public transportation modes with clearly-defined passenger types, vehicle structures and characteristics, routes and schedules, and operating practices and procedures. Apart from driving itself, the most important of these relate to crossing, loading, unloading, seating, passenger securement and wheelchair securement. All of these elements are blurred in motorcoach service:
- Schoolchildren on field trips must cross without the protective devices built into school buses, with which fellow motorists must comply as a matter of law.
- Many motorcoach passengers ride as standees, sometimes for all or most of the trip (e.g., on commuter/express runs deploying transit buses), or at least occasionally or periodically (e.g., on motorcoaches with bathrooms).
- Disabled passengers used to loading and unloading assistance on paratransit service receive limited assistance from motorcoach drivers who typically stand guard at the bottom of the stepwell.
- Disabled wheelchair occupants used to special care on paratransit, and (unfortunately) semi-special care on transit services, are rejected by motorcoaches without the equipment to accommodate them, or ride with drivers to whom their needs may be new, and possibly exotic.
Love, War and Court
All things may be fair in love and war. But they are not always fair in the courtroom. Regardless, wars and courtrooms share a common goal: The importance of winning. When any passenger is killed or injured on motorcoach services, his or her attorneys will make their best efforts to hold these services to the same standards (this is called deriving “maximum precedent value”) as the vehicles and services which customarily transport them in homogeneous groups, with specialized equipment, and under far narrower circumstances.
To compete in safety and liability with school buses, transit buses and paratransit vehicles – with their highly-trained, highly-specialized drivers, and their narrowly-defined service structures and responsibilities – motorcoach services must be equally as safe. Meeting this standard is a complex and strenuous task, and requires rigorous effort and focus. But it begins by recognizing what one is – at least during a particular run, or even at a particular moment. In the courtroom, if one has walked and talked like a duck, he or she better have also quacked.
When small schoolchildren alight from both school buses or, occasionally, “other” buses – whether transit buses or motorcoaches – they would do well to ask themselves, “What kind of bus am I riding?” and “Where do I cross?” Similarly, motorcoach drivers might do well do ask themselves, “Who am I carrying?” and “What kind of bus – and service – are they used to?” As any chameleon knows, you can blend in and hide, but you can’t disappear. If a larger animal bites off your head, you can only blame yourself for failing to look and act like a rock or a twig.