Just Being There

Statistically, riding on a bus is exponentially more safe than traveling by any other ground mode. However, most statistics only count fatalities and serious injuries to bus passengers. Hidden by such statistics are the enormous risks buses pose to pedestrians. From a bus driver’s perspective, simply being in the driver’s seat is not enough. Witness:

  • After dropping off his last commuter, a motorcoach driver began deadheading back to the storage yard in the distant suburbs. The driver noticed the pedestrian he had just smacked into only when he bounced back toward the front cap from the hood of an oncoming car into which he had just been pitched by the motorcoach. The coach driver claimed he was traveling only 15 mph. Yet the victim’s head smashed the street-side corner of the windshield, and his knee cracked the shock-absorbing, Romeo Rim bumper.
  • A special education driver stepped out of her driver’s side door and walked around the vehicle to help an attendant remove a motorized wheelchair user from the lowered lift platform. After completing this task, the driver walked back around the bus, stepped into the driver’s compartment, and pulled out – running over a disabled adult who had, moments earlier, stepped in front of the bus to hail a taxi.
  • Another motorcoach driver was nibbling breakfast cereal from a box he had rested on the left side of the dashboard. Making a left turn, he never noticed the elderly woman moving through the crosswalk directly in front of his windshield until, after running her over, he felt a “bump” when the street-side rear tires crushed her skull.
  • A school bus driver was turning left and never saw the pedestrian strolling across her windshield until striking her with the front left corner of the bus. The post-incident drug screen revealed that the driver was using methadone.
  • Tailgating another vehicle trying to also squeeze through the light, a paratransit van ran over an elderly woman who had stepped into the crosswalk after the first vehicle cruised through it.

Themes and Insight

Like expert witnesses, operating agencies and companies have opportunities to study hundreds of incidents, presumably learning from them. Along the way, patterns and themes emerge. The five incidents cited above share an important handful:

  • All five buses were making left turns.
  • All five pedestrians crossed from the curb-side to the street-side of the bus.
  • Not one driver testified to seeing the pedestrian, while every driver testified to learning about them mostly by experiencing the collision forces as the bus ran them over.
  • In none of these incidents did the pedestrian run or dart out into traffic, much less from behind a parked vehicle.
  • Four of the five pedestrians were walking within marked crosswalks when the collisions occurred.
  • All five incidents occurred during daylight hours, with no precipitation, on flat, level roadways, with no external sightline blockages

These patterns tell anyone analyzing them – including a jury of the victims’ peers – a great deal. But even before the most troubling conclusions, they tell us:

  1. Unless the drivers either lied about it or did not care, all five pedestrians passed across the respective bus driver’s entire windshield before they even noticed the victims.
  2. While it was impossible to determine the bus’ precise speed at the points of impact, most of the buses came to rest closer than would have been possible had reaction time begun only when the collision occurred. In other words, many if not all of the drivers were simply lying about not seeing the victims before striking them. In simple terms, they chose to lie rather than acknowledge the obvious inferences: If the pedestrians’ bodies passed across the drivers’ entire eight-foot-wide windshields before the drivers even noticed them, why didn’t they stop? What could these drivers have been thinking about? Where if anywhere were they looking?

Environments and Execution

The context in which these errors and omissions occurred heightened the degree of negligence that was almost inescapable. This context includes:

  • Unlike most right turns, left turns are typically much wider. One might even characterize a left-turning driver’s view of objects in front of the bus as panoramic. During this panorama, the role that window posts, mirrors and other appendages play in sightline blockage are minimal even where the drivers’ heads remain fixed in place.
  • In making turns of any type, bus drivers are trained to “rock and roll” – to effectively keep their head moving forwards, backwards and sideways, in order to peer around the appendages that might otherwise block their views.

Legitimate excuses for incidents like these are rare. Short of polygraph recordings, there is often no way to really know the distance between the point of impact and the point where the driver first spotted the victim. However, the evidence often suggests that several seconds elapsed between the driver’s first observation of the victim and the moment he or she struck the pedestrian with the bus. This hypothesis suggests that, at least during left turns, drivers are spending too much time looking at things they do not need to observe, and/or spending too much time either looking at nothing at all or thinking about other things.

As a starting point for safe and responsible vehicle handling, the need, time and sequence for scanning various mirrors depends on where the vehicle is and what its immediate operating environment encompasses. All mirrors are not needed for all turns, and the sequence for scanning them varies by the type of turn, and changes as the bus moves through it. But in no turn should the driver’s vision directly in front of the bus, and through the windshield, be omitted, or even relegated to secondary importance. The general rule is, if you cannot see, do not move the bus.

Truth and Consequences

The truth about the drivers’ roles in many accidents of this type may never be completely known. But the consequences and their implications are obvious: Unless a lot of drivers do not even care whom their buses strike, they spend a considerable amount of time, during safety-critical moments, looking or thinking about things other than those that safe driving dictates. As regular automobile operators, we are familiar with the phenomenon whereby miles seem to go by between thoughts about the roadway – yet we managed to obey traffic signals, signage, lane markings and a stream of oncoming vehicles without a hitch. Somehow, this practice fares worse for bus drivers than automobile drivers. One troubling statistic emerged from a study of pedestrian accidents, by mode, conducted by the New York City DMV between 1994 and 1997: Per million miles traveled, comparative vehicle-pedestrian fatalities among basic modes were:

  • cars are involved in 1.36
  • trucks are involved in 3.21
  • buses are involved in 8.80

Other studies, particularly in the pupil transportation community, suggest that buses are orders of magnitude safer than other modes in terms of passenger safety during home-to-school travel. However, most of the dramatic differences in fatality and serious injury rates simply reflected the geometric differences in mass between buses and the other vehicles that mostly collide with them. Otherwise, the statistics noted above suggest that this safety accrues to passengers on board at the expense of significantly-inflated risks for people outside the bus.

As we well know, truth without consequences is rare. The consequences of running over a pedestrian directly in front of the windshield are ugly not just for the pedestrian. Lest we forget this reality, we have plenty of lawsuits to remind us.

As an industry, those we place in the driver’s seat must be well-trained, skilled, alert, dedicated and focused. But they must also employ their skills and expertise continually. As driver’s compartments have become increasingly ergonomic, we have begun to sometimes refer to them as thrones. While those drivers sitting on them need not be kings, just being there is not enough.

Publications: National Bus Trader.