Getting Off the Bus: A Liability Landmine

Three decades ago, many transit bus runs were so featherbedded that literate drivers could write short stories during a typical layover. On Today’s typical layover, a fixed route bus driver can barely catch his or her breath. With a smattering of traffic or a few drops of rain, recovery time vanishes completely, and the driver is doomed to several consecutive hours of unrelenting stress and fatigue.

With the advent of full accessibility, and more recently the ADA, this situation became far more frenetic: These days, transit drivers never know when a wheelchair user might appear, whose boarding, wheelchair and passenger securement, detachment and alighting will obliterate any semblance of layover time. As a result. seasoned drivers have learned to constantly shave seconds and nanoseconds from their running time whenever and wherever they can find it. Not pulling to the curb (doing so would necessitate merging back into traffic), failing to kneel the bus, boarding and alighting passengers on the wrong side of the intersection when “making” or getting caught in a traffic light would otherwise require two near-duplicative stops, and failing to secure (or properly secure) wheelchairs or occupant restraints (relying instead on the “gait” or “posture” belts already affixed to many wheelchairs) have become common operating habits – if not de facto unwritten procedures. On many routes, few if any passengers can reach a point of seating or securement before the bus zooms off, leaving many of them off balance and at considerable risk of injury. Conversely, if a passenger doesn’t begin the alighting process by immediately proceeding down the passenger aisle after chiming the driver, and his or her face and body is not visible in the interior rear-view mirror, that passenger’s stop is likely to be skipped.

Safe Stops and Eye Rollers

One morning, traveling downtown via commuter express service, Jane Doe was seated at the rear of the 45-foot motorcoach with its single front door deployed by her local transit agency for commuter-express service. Because of the vehicle’s high floor – largely to accommodate massive luggage compartments that this class of passengers never used – the front-most eight or nine feet of the passenger aisle sloped down toward the platform at the top of the stepwell. (Some competitors’ coaches effect this level change with a short series of steps.) A seasoned rider, Jane knew she could not simply chime the driver, wait for the bus to stop, and then arise and walk toward the front of the coach – and expect to get off. Instead, seated in the very last row, she chimed the driver, arose immediately, and began walking forward. During this short dash, of course, this obese passenger was forced to stumble down the last sloped, eight-to-nine- foot section of the passenger aisle (grab handles were affixed only to the corners of every other irregularly-spaced aisle-side seatback on alternate sides of the aisle) during the most vulnerable moments of her trip – during the vehicle’s deceleration, braking and pull-in. So when the phantom taxi “cut the driver off” (usually a dog in the suburbs, and a deer in rural areas), and he stopped short, rider Doe’s feet slid down the slope, and she was pitched forward into the unpadded farebox.

Prayers and Pratfalls

As traffic, bad weather and wheelchair usage continue to increase, such accidents are becoming more and more commonplace. As an operating matter, the solution is obviously to add more running and recovery time to a lot of routes. (Policy rhetoric that places safety ahead of schedule adherence becomes laughable in court in the hands of a skilled expert witness armed with evidence of a tight schedule.) But this solution is also costly. It often means adding another bus or two to a route – along with its drivers, mechanics, fuel and numerous other layers of management and operating overhead that accompanies such fleet growth. And it may require restructuring, and often shortening, the route – eliminating desirable destinations that reduce the critical mass needed to optimize ridership. Regardless, if every passenger is afforded sufficient time to reach a point of seating or securement (as many transit agencies’ operating manuals state as formal requirements) before the bus departs, and allowed to remain seated until it comes to a stop at his or her destination, that route will take considerably longer to run – to the dismay of a significant spectrum of riders more than willing to trade off safety for travel speed. Of course, these riders are usually the least likely to be thrown off balance from severe changes in inertial and centrifugal force. But is this the message we want our transit services to symbolize? “Send us your young, your athletic, your huddled acrobats. But elderly, obese and disabled passengers, children, and anyone carrying something, beware!”

Depending on statutes, regulations, lower court and appellate rulings and precedents, judges’ and juries’ sensibilities – and the capabilities of witnesses and expert witnesses to place them in perspective with respect to reasonable and prudent notions of safety – transit operators get away with these antics to different degrees in different states. The variation is enormous. In many states, courts have succeeded in defining requirements for measuring “jerks and jolts” that are difficult or impossible for engineering experts to establish after-the-fact, much less without instrumentation on board when the incident occurred. In four states, one percent contributory negligence – a not unreasonable contribution from someone slipping and falling – dismisses the case entirely against all defendants. In contrast, many transit agencies are hamstrung by policies and procedures that require drivers to give passengers a chance to remain secured before the bus pulls in or out.

Fact be known, having safe policies and procedures presents a unique liability enigma: While failing to follow them can hang the transit agency in court, following them generally prevents the incident, and its inevitable lawsuit, in the first place. Regardless, such policies and procedures only have meaning, as a practical matter, if there is sufficient running and recovery time in the vehicle’s schedule.

Baffles and Band-Aids

While establishing and employing safe operating procedures are obviously the preferable solution to this particular set of problems, there are other measures that can be taken to “soften the blows.” Paramount among them are equipping the bus or coach with devices which help the passengers maintain their balance while standing or moving through the passenger compartment, and/or which protect them if and when they fail to. Among these devices are:

  • Padded grab handles installed on the upper outside corner of every aisle-side seatback (and spacing the seats at regular intervals to optimize their effectiveness)
  • Horizontal stanchions installed throughout the entire interior of the passenger compartment, supplemented with strap hangers at various intervals
  • High-profile non-skid flooring
  • Padded fareboxes, wheelchair lift mechanisms and other appendages, and their positioning out of harm’s way to the degree possible

Increasing the Choices

Finally, a solution particularly effective in avoiding both boarding and alighting accidents, particularly on crowded coaches, is the installation of a rear door. Particularly in the Age of automated fare collection, supplemented with digital monitoring capabilities, it is no longer unthinkable to permit passengers to board through the rear door. These concepts are important to consider since, as a matter of law (thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act), every street-legal motorcoach will have some sort of rear door by the year 2012, or be relegated to operating in some poor, foreign market or the scrap heap.

The complexities, opportunities and challenges of adding a rear door to motorcoaches deployed in commuter-express service will be explored in the next installment of this series in NBT. Regardless, if you want to fill or empty a container more quickly, the most obvious and direct approach is to widen or increase the number of openings. Little physics needed here.

Publications: National Bus Trader.