Knowledge and Perception

My sister is a high school art teacher. Several Summers ago, I toured her classroom. It was ringed with near-perfect drawings of animals. Surprised by my sister’s apparent callousness toward students with lesser skills, I initiated this dialog:

Me:      “How can you do this?”
Her:      “How can I do what?”
Me:      “How can you plaster your best student’s drawings all around the room?”
Her:      “These aren’t my best student’s drawings. They’re all my students’ drawings.”
Me:      “Come on! You can’t tell me you can teach every single kid how to draw!”

Her response overwhelmed me: “I don’t teach any of them how to draw. I teach them how to see.” While I did not realize it, this perspective contained the key to transportation safety and liability:\C2 Most accidents don’t happen because of things you don’t know. They happen because of things you don’t see.

Knowing and Seeing

In many of the accidents I have examined, I have found literally dozens of errors and omissions. Yet I also found much of the training to be excellent. Screening and hiring were thorough. Drivers were well-qualified. And management had formidable credentials. So how and why did these things happen:

  • A motorcoach driver followed a circuitous, convoluted path through a hotel grounds and discharged his passengers, 10 feet from the curb, onto an icy, potholed driveway shaded by an entranceway canopy – instead of onto the loading ramp a few feet from the lobby door. Despite her caution and baby steps, an elderly woman slipped and fell. Explaining his odd meandering, the driver claimed he was lost. Several days before learning he had been going to this hotel every year “since the Sixties,” I realized the driver had selected this unloading point so that he wouldn’t have to step out into the snow to unload luggage and drag it around the coach.
  • Speeding along an expressway in heavy traffic, another motorcoach driver testified that he noticed a car alongside him swerving while its driver talked on her cell phone. A few seconds later he instructed one of his passengers to sit down. Ninety seconds later, after the driver had distanced his coach only two bus-lengths behind the erratic motorist, a third motorist honked at her, and startled her into over-steering. Her car bobbed back and forth, veered across all three lanes, spun completely around, collided with a guard rail, bounced back onto the freeway, and landed in front of the motorcoach in the middle lane – all this in heavy traffic traveling at least 50 miles per hour. The motorcoach driver then slammed on his brakes and swerved around the car, missing it completely. His standee – whose presence in the aisle he had checked only once during the entire time all these events allegedly transpired – flew into the dashboard and bounded into the stepwell. In reconstructing the accident (much of which appeared to be pure fantasy), I calculated that the third vehicle was only half a bus-length in front of the motorcoach barreling down on it – if that vehicle existed at all: Between the motorcoach and swerving car only moments before, the third vehicle mysteriously vanished, unscathed. Far more likely, the motorcoach driver was simply tailgating.
  • A transit driver pulled his bus forward of the stop to await maintenance personnel. During the repair, he met a mother waiting in the shelter, with her two children, for their father’s arrival. Because an advertising poster blocked the driver’s view of the shelter through his curb-side exterior mirror, he could not peer into it when he pulled out – and didn’t bother to check whether the trio was still in the shelter. The roar of the engine startled the youngest child out of her front seat in a tandem stroller, and she was crushed beneath the curbside rear tires.
  • Distracted by a bus full of jumping, running, screaming, punching and wrestling passengers, a schoolbus driver failed to notice when a kindergartner who had just alighted (along with four other students) paused momentarily in the “danger zone” in front of the entrance door – a position obscured from view in either mirror, and cast in shadow by the bus’ position between the victim and the sun. Failing to reconcile the number of students crossing with those who had just alighted, the driver began pulling out. Presumably knowing she was supposed to cross in front of the bus, the kindergartner dropped her belongings and raced across. With her complaints about wild passengers ignored by school district personnel, the driver had turned up her A.M. radio to blare volume – presumably to block out the distraction. So she didn’t hear the child scream as the front bumper knocked her down, the front axle stem gnarled her torso, and the left rear tire crushed her skull.
  • A transit driver pulled his bus diagonally to the curb, with its rear jutting into traffic. With the sector of his view through the side-view mirror rotated, he couldn’t (or didn’t) see a bicyclist who had circled around the rear of the bus just as he began to pull out. The startled cyclist swerved into an adjacent lane where she was struck by a car passing the bus. After pulling over, momentarily, at the opposite side of the intersection, the bus driver simply drove away. His involvement was documented by a silhouette in the police report submitted by the victim’s attorney.
  • During the dark pre-dawn hours, another transit driver discharged a middle school student at an improvised, mid-block stop along a wooded area across from the entranceway to his school. With the bus blocking the discharge area’s only source of illumination from a single street lamp across the street, the student stepped off the bus, walked alongside it to the rear and, with another motorist pausing so that its headlamps could light the area behind the bus, began walking across. Because the bus hadn’t pulled over, its left side lay flush against the yellow center line – making it impossible for the student to observe oncoming traffic until he stepped into its path. He was struck by a pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction.

Common Themes

A salient characteristic of all these incidents was the presence of an experienced, often career, driver. More importantly – to both safety and liability – few things the drivers didn’t know would likely have mattered. In contrast, the incidents occurred largely because the drivers didn’t look, didn’t see, didn’t think or didn’t care. In some cases, they didn’t bother. Far more significantly, individuals in the layers of management above the driver – training instructors, supervisors, dispatchers, operations managers, system designers policy-makers – failed to monitor their services effectively, if they monitored them at all.

Far and away, the most common element in public transportation accidents is marginal or non-existent monitoring. Defendants’ attorneys are often startled to find that evidence of their clients’ multi-week training courses and thick drivers’ manuals actually works against them! After all, if the training was so good, the driver must not have understood it, remembered it or applied it. Worse still, management’s failure to evaluate the driver’s comprehension, retention and application of training may appear (or may be characterized) as indifference or disregard – magic words in the quest for punitive damages.

Accidents, Negligence, Responsibility and Remorse

Accidents actually do happen. If they didn’t, the word would have been expunged from the dictionary. (Last time I checked, it was still there.) But even where no negligence was involved, a pure accident can mean years of litigation, six-figure legal fees, higher insurance premiums, cancellation of policies, the ordeal of deposition and trial testimony, public embarrassment, pangs of conscience and, in some cases, demotion or firing.

Such tribulations can be draining – even haunting – if you and your staff did nothing wrong. If one of your passengers is maimed or killed because of something you didn’t know, you may be held accountable. But if it happens because of something you didn’t see, it could be a lot worse.

Publications: National Bus Trader.