Double the Passengers, Double the Responsibility: Part 1 – How Not to Design and Operate a Double Decker Bus

While still on a relatively small scale, one of the most intriguing, recent dynamics of the motorcoach industry has been the expanded use of double-decker buses – not merely as open-air sightseeing vehicles, but as high-capacity intercity, luxury coaches. One innovative operator is already deploying these vehicles on 20 intercity routes – mostly to and from New York City and Chicago.

Duties and Challenges

With the expanded capacity and profits these vehicles and services present come challenges and responsibilities. These challenges begin with the enigma of luggage space – since double-deckers are constructed on low-floor “platforms” whose space is occupied by passengers. But they end with safety and liability – particularly the conflicts that these taller vehicles may have with bridges, overpasses, street lamps and other objects which would not conflict with the movements of traditional, single-decker buses or coaches.

Part Two of this series will explore the virtuosity of one double decker innovator in designing a full-blown program for the vehicles’ deployment that encompasses every category from marketing to safety, including some impressive vehicle characteristics one might not suspect the average company to even bother with. In this installment, Part One, I will provide some insight into what not to do, including the series of blunders that led to two catastrophic accidents involving double-decker buses.

Overpasses and Underplanning

When thoughtless and ignorant amateurs transform standard buses into “double deckers” and deploy them without any serious knowledge of operating reality, the mayhem they invite lies beyond reasonably foreseeable. It is almost inevitable:

  • One late Summer evening, as the sun faded below the horizon, an open-air, double decker shuttle bus was cruising along a freeway replete with underpasses, overpasses and on- and off-ramps criss-crossing the freeway at regular and irregular intervals. Heading to a sports even from a major league stadium that served as a fringe parking lot, a number of passengers rode on the open, upper deck, taking in the rustic whoosh of Summer breezes as their vehicle steamed into the warm, night air. As the bus passed beneath a bridge, two passengers who were standing had their heads smashed to bits as they collided with the side of the bridge structure. One victim died shortly after arriving at a nearby hospital, while the other was merely mutilated.
  • Another bus “converted” from a high-floor, “Type C” school bus into an open-air, double-decker “booster club bus” was traveling to an afternoon sporting event, picking up passengers, food and liquor at several stops along an hours-long route improvised as the bus rolled along. After the last pickup close to the stadium, eight passengers ascended the steps to the upper deck. With most of the unfixed, plastic deck chairs still folded up, many passengers rode standing and cheering, with fight songs blaring from loudspeakers surrounding them. As this bus approached an albeit high bridge, at least one passenger yelled “duck.” Two passengers failed to hear or heed the warning and, nanoseconds later, their heads were smashed to smithereens as they struck the bridge’s siding. The victim killed was cart-wheeled off the upper deck onto an equally-dangerous rear deck created by removing the last eight feet or so of the original bus’ body and roof panels. The second victim was merely mutilated.

Common Themes and Uncommon Recklessness

Apart from their nearly-identical death and injury tolls, both vehicles and the operating environments in which they were deployed shared many common elements. Among them:

  • Both vehicles were “converted” from high-floor “platforms” – one, a full-size school bus. Without changing the interior headroom of the buses’ lower levels, this “conversion” essentially positioned the floor of the upper deck (a platform simply mounted to the original bus’ roof) roughly two feet higher than that of a purpose-built, double-decker.
  • Neither of these buses’ operators – including both their owners and their drivers – appear to have undertaken any route planning whatsoever, even though free assistance in route planning is provided, in almost every state, by their respective state departments of transportation, and local branches of the American Automobile Association (AAA) and Family Motorhome Association (FMHA).
  • Despite the presence of a PA system with exterior speakers on at least one of these buses, no warnings appear to have been articulated – including no warning to ride only inside the bus, much less to remain seated if one ignored the principal warning.
  • During the amateurish efforts involved in converting the original vehicles into double deckers, no thoughts appear to have been given to the vehicle’s directional stability – even though the conversions raised the vehicles’ centers-of-gravity considerably and greatly increased their rollover propensity.
  • Unlike the seats that remained (or which were reinstalled) on the lower level, the seats on the upper level of at least one of these buses were not fixed to the deck, exposing even seated passengers to the whims of inertial and centrifugal forces that could easily have tossed them, seats and all, over the side.

In essence, the effort to convert both these vehicles resembled that of building a “float” for a parade. Unlike the parades in which most floats are deployed, of course, the two vehicles noted were not operating on confined, well-planned, short segments of local and collector streets with speeds limited to no more than three miles per hour. Instead, the vehicles were operating, with passengers standing on their exposed, upper decks, in high-speed traffic on freeways and arterial roadways – the very roadways most likely to encounter bridges and overpasses.

Nuances and Nuisances

Digging deeper into the dynamics of one of these transportation holocausts revealed a cavalier approach to both the vehicle’s conversion and its deployment. Among the anomalies:

  • The driver did not possess a commercial drivers’ license, and as a result, his handling and operation of the bus-in-question had never been tested or certified. Otherwise, he had no training as a bus driver whatsoever. When the incident occurred, 22 passengers were on board (either inside the passenger compartment, on the rear deck, or on the other deck), and following its “conversion,” the vehicle’s GVWR exceeded 26,001 lbs. Among the training the bus’ driver did not receive was a knowledge of the vehicle’s dimensions, much less a knowledge of bridge heights or the need to watch for them and other hazards to which upper deck riders would be subjected.
  • When the new back wall was installed between the shortened passenger compartment and the now-rear deck, the door between the two contained a manually-operated lock – instead of a lock that the driver could have released from the driver’s compartment, and which could and should have been used to lock passengers inside the lower level passenger compartment when the vehicle was in motion.
  • While passengers rode on the upper deck, and ascended and descended the ladder (i.e., not a stepwell) to and from it at will, no cameras or other surveillance equipment was installed that would have provided an attentive driver with a view of occupants on the rear or upper decks. When stowed, the ladder was positioned, curiously, on the upper deck. Of course, when the incident noted occurred, it was in place for climbing and descending, just as the door to the rear deck on the way to it was unlocked.
  • The upper deck was equipped with railings roughly 30 to 36 inches in height that folded down to accommodate the bus’ clear passage beneath bridges. During the trip involving the incident, the railings were unfurled – providing a false sense of security to riders on the upper deck, and inviting them to travel on it.
  • Ignoring the glaring risks the vehicle’s typical usage involved, or perhaps trying to evade the liability that naturally accompanied them, its owner insured the bus only as a motorhome.
  • While the driver of a “chase vehicle” warned passengers on the upper deck to climb down when the vehicle was about to depart on the final leg of its journey, he apparently did not warn the driver. Otherwise, no one monitored the passengers’ compliance with this warning. When one of them actually asked the driver if it was OK to ride on the upper deck, he simply shrugged his shoulders.
  • While creating an upper deck obviously increased the vehicle’s “crush capacity” (no pun intended) and, as a result, its laden weight, no accommodations were made to enhance its brake system. Instead, the vehicle cruised along in a gray area between sets of regulations designed for specific types and classes of vehicles.
  • No materials from the original equipment manufacturer – such as conversion or incomplete vehicle manuals – were referenced during the bus’ conversion.
  • Unlike most motorcoaches, no dispatcher was available with whom to contact. In fact, the bus did not even possess a two-way radio – even while the “chase vehicle” had one with which its driver could communicate with both the driver of the double decker bus and the driver of a retro hook-and-ladder fire truck advancing as part of the three-vehicle phalanx often separated by several blocks’ of intervening traffic. Because a warning from the chase vehicle’s driver to the bus driver was ignored, the “I-told-you-so” regrets of the chase vehicle’s driver were mere afterthoughts when he observed a cluster of standees on the bus’ upper deck approaching the bridge.
  • At no point either within or outside the lower level passenger compartment was any signage posted warning passengers not to ride outside the vehicle, much less standing. Nor was a tour guide stationed on the upper deck to make sure that the passengers at least rode seated.
  • As part of it many attention-grabbing accoutrements, the bus contained a PA system with exterior speakers that blasted the upper deck passengers with pep-band music as it zoomed toward its destiny. In contrast, there was no equipment installed with which the driver could have communicated with passengers on either the rear or upper deck.
  • As a converted Type C school bus, the vehicle contained only a leaf-spring suspension system – a system inappropriate for standees even inside the passenger compartment. Outside this compartment, inertial and centrifugal forces would only be exaggerated. Given this context, permitting standees to ride on the rear and, particularly, the upper deck was, frankly, outrageous.
  • Needless to say, not a smidgeon of written or unwritten policies or procedures existed. Nor was there evidence of any training for drivers, including the one operating the vehicle when the incident occurred.
  • As noted, no route planning of any type was performed, despite the free and easy availability of it to anyone willing to dial a telephone or send an e-mail or letter. So not only were no warnings issued for the driver to not stray from the segment of the route intersecting the bridge, but the route as a whole was actually improvised as the bus rolled along in response to a series of cell-phone calls during the morning of the incident.

As an interesting footnote, while coolers full of beer and whiskey also lay on the upper deck, and a few passengers had partaken of them, neither of the two victims were drunk. Nor were any of the other passengers. The driver was stone cold sober.

It must also be noted that, while the particular incident-in-question did not harm any of the passengers riding on the vehicle’s open rear deck, these passengers were equally exposed to genuine risks – particularly those materializing from a rear-ending, or incidents where this deck’s passengers were whipped off the rear or over the sides of the deck from changes in inertial and/or centrifugal forces, particularly those created by rapid acceleration and cornering. The fact that no thought was given to the risks of passengers riding on either deck only enhanced the degree of indifference (or “reckless disregard” in the parlance of attorneys) toward passengers shown by the owner and operator of the bus, much less the hoard of booster club members involved in the bus’ conversion, and/or who rode it regularly or occasionally.

Ignoring the Arithmetic

Most second-graders fluent in basic arithmetic can add together three (floor height of lower deck), six and a half (height allowance for tallish passengers on lower deck), another six and a half (height allowance for tallish passengers on upper deck), and another half (the thickness of the ceiling/upper deck flooring). These numbers total 16½ — as in 16½ feet. While few second-graders would likely know that common bridge heights on Federal highways were 13½ feet, they would likely have learned the importance of these two figures in third grade, when they learned how to perform subtraction. In contrast, the bridge-in-question involved in the accident was 15 feet high – effectively “splitting the difference,” and contained clear signage declaring this fact to any approaching driver or motorist who bothered to look and care. For passengers standing on the bus’ upper deck, even this height poised the bridge to knock their blocks off. That it did should hardly come as a surprise.

This second incident of those noted above occurred several years ago. The first one occurred more recently. As such, fewer details about the former are known to anyone other than “insiders,” and much of this information is not likely known as the process of examining it “under the microscope of a law suit” has barely begun. Further investigation into it’s causation is likely to reveal similarly alarming and unforgivable ignorance, recklessness and indifference, and a glaring isolation from a broad range of safety standards, regulations and procedures applicable to the creation and usage of such a vehicle.

Under and Over the Liability Radar

Morphing a vehicle into a mode that lies between regulatory cracks is hardly a free pass from liability. This principle has become increasingly true with the progression of civil litigation. Three years ago, in Gomez v. Superior Court, a California appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that an amusement park ride is a “common carrier” – held to the highest standard or duty of care. In a similar case that same year, Squaw Valley v. Superior Court, another California appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that a ski lift is a common carrier. Given such rulings, the likelihood that any type of bus would not be deemed a common carrier, and its owners, managers and drivers held only to a mere “ordinary duty of care” is becoming more and more rare, if not altogether remote in all or most states. In another State-of-California lawsuit in which I was involved as an expert (on behalf of the plaintiff), the court ruled in our favor even though the defendant had complied with every regulatory requirement – proving once again that mere compliance with regulatory requirements is not a free pass from responsibility. Squaring off against a attorney who masterminded the well-known Peterson case, and another spearheading the equally-famous Erin Brockovich case, my counsel was awarded the California Trial Lawyers Association “Attorney-of-the-Year” award for demonstrating this very principle.

Both of the catastrophic, double decker bus cases outlined above demonstrate that, while one may fly beneath the regulatory radar, doing so does not help one very much when his or her vehicle flies beneath an overpass. Part Two of this series will provide valuable lessons about what a prudent, caring, responsible and genuinely professional motorcoach company can do in the name of safety, even while stretching the envelope in innovation. Needless to say, that company is beginning to reap exceptional rewards for its efforts – efforts that are likely to contribute in no small way to the increasingly formidable role that motorcoach service is beginning to play in the American transportation landscape.

Publications: National Bus Trader.