Common Signage and Common Sense: Confusing Signage, Worse Enforcement

When things go awry on a bus or motorcoach trip, a range of parties may be found liable, including operating companies, lead agencies, prime contractors, subcontractors, schools/churches/clubs, travel agents, leasing companies, bus manufacturers, dealers, maintenance facilities, drivers, tour guides and mechanics. One should not be terribly surprised if and when the tentacles of litigation ensnare a regulatory agency.

If the incident is related to malfunctioning brakes, steering or suspension systems, co-defendant operating companies and manufacturers often duke it out in court, with blame seesawing between design, engineering, production and/or quality assurance versus maintenance and/or inspection. But many equipment problems are rarely the fault of the bus or coach manufacturer, and do not involve errors or omissions in design, engineering, testing, certification, production or quality assurance. Instead, the vehicle’s purchaser and operator are responsible for them – both at the specification level and the retrofit level. A salient example involves signage. Negligent signage often contributes to on-board slips-and-falls, alighting incidents, and wheelchair and passenger securement mayhem.

Standing and Walking

Particularly during braking, deceleration, merging, weaving and/or turning – most of which occur as a bus or coach approaches a stop – walking around on board can be dangerous, even with state-of-the-art pneumatic suspension systems. But there are no better ways to admit that this is reasonably foreseeable than to post a “no standing” sign (typically “no standing forward of white line”) or install a restroom. Compounding this foreseeability, the victim’s attorney or forensic expert may also find (a) an oversized, interior rear-view mirror (in which the driver could have viewed the victim’s movement before the incident), a PA system with interior speakers (which the driver could have used to warn the victim that the coach’ inertial or lateral movement was about to change), exterior restroom usage lights (which the driver could have observed through the rear-view mirrors to note that a passenger was inside), under-seat flooring in the aisles (instead of ribbed, non-skid flooring), and the absence, sparcity or irregular spacing of seatback handles (apart from horizontal stanchions that could have been integrated into some package racks). Important to note from a liability perspective, all these items are options which purchasers can select. All can also be easily and cheaply retrofitted. Thus, all of them lie under the direct control of the party specifying and selecting the coach.

Signage and Counter-signage

No element of passenger information is as recklessly and needlessly obfuscated than messages about exiting. This is far more true of transit rear doors than motorcoaches, although the principles are the same. Look quickly at the photograph below – and pretend you must decipher its essence (a) in three seconds, (b) at night, (c) in a dimly-lit bus, (d) with a passenger walking down the stepwell in front of you, and while (e) finding exact change, (f) paying the fare (common in commuter/express service), (g) grabbing onto a handrail, (h) avoiding passengers who are boarding, (i) trying to look where you step, and (j) trying to gauge how far the vehicle lies from the curb.

An alighting passenger has only seconds to review and decipher a considerable amount of information. Often, signage is fragmented. Often it is incoherent. Often it is contradictory. And often it does not reflect how the doors even operate (as it does not in the photograph shown above). Common examples of misinformation (most of which appear in this photograph), clutter and false inducements include:

  • Signs posted to “stand clear” of outward-opening doors
  • Signs instructing passengers to “watch their step”
  • Signs instructing passengers to “wait for light then open doors” (yet not telling them how)
  • Signs telling passengers to push tape to open (when doors also open manually)
  • Signs telling passenger to “open doors” (when they open in at least two modes)
  • Identically-colored vertical yellow tapes (with one set for chimes and one for door-opening – with no way for passengers to distinguish between them)
  • Unreachable chimes (which passengers must lean over the stepwell to reach)
  • Rubber door moldings (which passengers might mistake for sensitive edges, which the door pictured here did not have)

Such misinformation and clutter can also be compounded by the presence of extraneous information outside the bus (e.g., in the photo above, note the detailed instructions for lifting a box that appear through one door panel!). In contrast, one rarely finds signage that accurately tells passengers how the doors work: Important information to convey might include options for opening them, how they close, how long they will remain open, and/or the distance from the bottom step to the ground. Often, these shortcomings are further compounded by poorly-designed stepwells and handrails, and illogical and counter-intuitive door operating configurations. And they are yet further compounded by differences from bus to bus: Because many fleets contain different vehicle models with different door configurations, drivers are often unaware of how the doors operate on their bus du jour.

What You See Is Not What You Get

Wheelchair securement hardware and equipment pose similar problems, even for professional drivers who are supposed to be familiar with them. As with doors and door configurations, securement hardware often differs from bus to bus. But these differences are severely compounded when instructions for their usage do not even match the equipment on the vehicle! During at least two bus inspections I conducted, I found instructions stamped onto metal plates mounted to the underside of the flip-up seats describing different equipment than had been installed on the bus. It did not help that the equipment and/or its installation were themselves problematic and counter-intuitive. The misinformation accessible to drivers merely exacerbated these problems.

Where such problems exist, and incidents result, it may be difficult for any party – bus manufacturer, dealer, seat manufacturer, securement system manufacturer or operating agency/company – to escape liability. Instead, such discrepancies provide clear and compelling evidence that none of these parties coordinated or cooperated in design, engineering, production, quality assurance or specification efforts related to this important vehicle feature.

Omissions and Enforcement

Some signage that is valid and important – like instructions to not eat or drink on board – is commonly omitted. Yet even where it exists, compliance is rarely enforced. Gooey aisles are particularly problematic on commuter/express services, where the coaches make multiple stops and passengers often arise before the vehicle has come to a halt. Mingling with snow and rain, much less on smooth flooring and/or on the sloping front segments of some coach aisles, food and drink can turn the aisles into water slides.

Indifference to signage easy to enforce – like priority seating instructions on transit buses – is responsible for a considerable number of slip-and-fall injuries. As a curious footnote, “priority seating for the elderly” was subsumed by language in the ADA, and as a consequence, priority seating for elderly individuals technically disappeared in 1991. Of course, this provision becomes the basis for “detrimental reliance” on buses or coaches whose signage has not been updated to “priority seating for the disabled,” or even if the signage on other buses in the fleet has not been. But even with updated signage, arguing this nuance of the regulatory environment in court is an iffy strategy when an elderly standee flew into the windshield and fell into the stepwell. It is a particularly audacious claim for a motorcoach operator, since 60 percent of motorcoach passengers are elderly and standees are not permitted as a custom-of-the-trade.

All or Nothing at All

My experiences with signage has led to three hypotheses:

  1. No signage is better than un-enforced signage.
  2. No signage is better than incomprehensible or ambiguous signage.
  3. Any of these alternatives is better than contradictory signage.

While the need for and validity of any particular signage content or arrangement may certainly differ with respect to their operating context, these hypotheses at least provide a “starting point” from which to begin thinking about the subject, from both a design and operating perspective.

In a juror’s mind, what possible excuse could a bus or coach manufacturer or purchaser have for failing to think clearly about such simple things? In the courtroom, this conundrum suggests indifference, and translates conveniently into the notion of “complete disregard” – a qualification which, in many states, opens the doorway (jackknife, plug, bi-fold or pantographic) to punitive damages.

Manufacturers and purchasers of motorcoach vehicles, doors, seating systems and securement devices should be wary of signage whose messages may not be clear to a jury of one’s peers after hours of deliberation. Such individuals may be reminded, in clever closing arguments, that the victims had only three seconds.

Publications: National Bus Trader.