Height, Width and Deeply-Entrenched Ignorance

I could have called this article, “Know Your Bus.” But I have two much respect for the many U.S. motorcoach operators to dumb down this important discussion to the crayon level. But the fact is, many of the most fundamental things about our buses and coaches are not being taught to our drivers – or they are not understanding, retaining or applying them. And as NBT article after article have pointed out, training has no meaning if it is not understood, retained and applied.

I have complained for two decades about the fact that drivers of any type of bus are rarely taught anything about basic fundamentals like inertial or centrifugal forces. A similar omission is failing to train drivers about the simple dimensions of their vehicles – not a Herculean task since there are only three of them: Height, width and length, although I suppose it is important to also know your vehicle’s clearance, angles of approach and departure and a few dynamics like its turning radius. But there is no remote  excuse for a driver not knowing his vehicle’s height, width and length, just as there is no excuse for not teaching him or her that it also has steering and brakes. The illustration below involves a transit bus. The incident scenario described below involved a transit bus. But it is far more relevant to motorcoach operations since most of their drivers (commuter/express and scheduled service excepted) do not generally know every nook and cranny of the route – unlike transit drivers, who operate the very same route, several times a day, often for months or years at a stretch.

Judgment and Memory

There are just some things a driver must know about his bus or coach:

The 12/ ½-foot high underside of a railroad was being repaired by a two-man crew standing on a 11 ½ to 12-foot-high scaffold. Repair is really an overstatement, because they were simply replacing light bulbs. Like many bridges, the underpass had two lanes in each direction, separated by a cement wall. The right-hand repair lane was blocked off with barricades and reflective warning cones, and all traffic was guided into the single, open left lane. But a three-foot-long strut from the scaffold in the right lane extended into the left lane through which buses and other vehicles were allowed to pass. A transit bus entered the underpass, and noting the scaffold and extension, its driver slowed to between two to four miles per hour so that he could judge whether or not he could clear the extension protruding from the scaffold. He was operating a low-floor transit bus that would normally have been slightly less than 11 feet high. But he apparently forgot it was a CNG bus, with two housings on the roof covering CNG canisters, canopies roughly eight inches in height. This was hardly a quirk: Every single bus in his storage division was a CNG bus!  Not remembering this, the driver felt he could “clear” the scaffold, continued forward, and indeed cleared it with the front cap of his bus. However, the first canopy did not clear it, and the bus knocked it over, pitching the two workers off the scaffold to the ground 12 feet below. One was killed and the other severely brain-damaged. At the lawsuit level, essentially a $10M-type error.

The plaintiff sued the transit agency, among several or eight other innocent co-defendants, including the scaffold manufacturer which I was representing as its expert witness. The initial ruling went against the transit agency. This defendant then filed a cross-claim against my client, and five days after I was engaged, the case was dismissed when our Motion for Summary Judgment (i.e., motion for dismissal) was granted by the court. This was not exactly a difficult judge’s decision: In his deposition the driver testified that his bus was 10 feet wide and 11 feet high.

Within 60 seconds of my initial telephone call from the attorney, I pulled two product specification sheets for the bus-in-question out of my library, and found that the two models of that vehicles’ CNG buses were 11’ 5” and 11’ 7” in height, respectively. So to blame this incident on my client would have been sheer folly: All the judge needed to determine fault was a mastery of second-grade arithmetic.

Crayons and Finger Painting

Trying hard not to turn this piece into a political statement, some nations (Sweden is the best example) are quickly approaching their goals of zero vehicle-to-pedestrian accidents, and reducing vehicle-to vehicle collisions to an asterisk. I doubt any country will completely meet such goals. But the fact that at least one (Sweden) is close provides a vivid comparison to the imprecision of operations in our nation where serious, fatality accidents happen often, and with the Press and Media attention they get, seem almost like everyday occurrences. This fact is not a general put-down of American public transportation services. The vast majority of them operate safely, and their drivers know how tall their vehicles are.. But the exceptions are rampant and inexcusable. This is particularly true in the transit sector, where virtually every route’s schedule is too tight, drivers enjoy no recovery time (if not negative recovery time), are constantly fatigued, and engage in all type and manner of safety compromises to create an occasional sliver of recovery time. In the incident describe above, I did not get to work on the case long enough to learn whether or not any of these factors has a bearing on the time the driver took to make his critical misjudgment. (It might have taken 30 seconds to call the dispatcher to learn how high his bus was.) But I had previously helped sue that transit system 29 times (two other cases against it are still active), and know as a fact that the schedules of virtually every one of its hundreds of routes are too tight, and contain no recovery time whatsoever, other than occasional, rare exceptions.

As noted, motorcoaches – particularly those operating one-of-a-kind charter services – are at much more risk for this type of incident than are transit buses. Not only are motorcoaches higher, but many charter companies’ schedulers do not bother to take advantage of the many sources of information about bridge heights along the routes-in-question. This information can be obtained quickly and easily from almost every DMV or Transportation Department at the State and local level, or from the American Automobile Association. Combining this lack of information with the driver having no knowledge of his or her vehicle’s dimensions is a formula for carnage,

Back to Basics

In truth, certain things are so obvious that training drivers to avoid them would simply dilute the agenda. For example, drivers are almost never told to not shoot or rape the passengers. Yet I have served as an expert witness in two assault cases and 18 molestation cases (mostly involving physically and developmentally-disabled victims) But not committing these transgressions is obvious, not only to drivers, but to everyone. So they do not necessarily belong in driver training curricula. But as the scenario above illustrates, other rudimentary things that many driver are either not being trained about, or where their understanding, retention and application of this training is not being monitored and/or reinforced are not obvious to many drivers.

If we want to reduce the mayhem in our industry, enhance the general public’s confidence in the safety of our services, and reduce our premiums, we will have to admit we are not as smart as we think we are. And we will have to admit that too many members of our industry  provide far too little training about important things. While the scenario cited above may have been  a rarity – although I recently worked on a similar case less than a year ago where a delivery truck did not see a cable TV wire extending across the street, struck it, and knocked a cable installation worker holding one end of it off a tall ladder.

As an industry, we can site all the statistics we want about how safe our services are compared to those operated by common, untrained motorists in relatively small, light-weight vehicles. We have many advantages that make this possible, including vehicle of huge mass operated by professional-trained drivers. But we are not a panacea for safety, and unfortunate, our Press and Media expose our failures to a wide audience of current and potential riders. If we do not improve training about the most rudimentary procedures and concepts to our work force, this will never change. As a result, the growth of our industry that should almost certainly explode as fast as our middle class is eroding and becoming increasingly public transportation-dependent will not materialize nearly to the size it needs to. So the inverse of what I have been arguing for two decades now – “Safety Sells” – is also true: Poor safety, and the widespread revelation of it in our press and media (not to mention the lawsuits!), will discourage the purchase of our services. If we fail to address these problems, our nation’s 33,000-thousand-vehicle motorcoach fleet will remain pretty much the same size a decade from now – where, instead, our nation would benefit greatly from significant growth.

The push for better training and monitoring must come from our operators, and they in turn, must be pushed by our manufacturers (unless they have little interest in increasing their production volumes). Regulatory enforcement, and weaknesses in our service structure – insufficient enforcement of Hours-of-Service violations, obscenely overly-tight schedules, shift inversion allowable by dysfunctional regulations, and little meaningful help from insurance carriers – fail to stem to tide of our plethora of serious accidents. To grow and prosper as an industry, we must do more. And we must do better.

A guiding principle in the construction industry is to “measure twice, cut once.” This approach generally eliminates errors – eliminating them almost completely. In contrast, we often fail to train once, and fail to monitor the understanding, retention and application of training at all . We all know our show sizes. So how much more should it take to tell our drivers – and force them to remember – the length, width and height of the 38,00 to 45,000 lbs. behemoths they operate from day to day?

Publications: National Bus Trader.