Listening and Botherings

Most things the general population hears about passenger transportation accidents are often vivid, dramatic and often horrific. And as noted in many previous NBT installments, most of the hoopla encompasses an accident’s symptoms, while the genuine reasons for it – what attorneys refer to as "causation" – often smolder below the surface. The four most frequent examples of this – examples that appear to trigger the lion’s share of all passenger transportation accidents – are fatigue, overly-tight schedules, low driver wages and poor or non-existent monitoring. But there are other, more subtle underlying causes of many accidents, particularly those involving motorcoaches. One of them is the driver’s failure to listen and/or bother.

Because there is so much going on while driving a bus or motorcoach, including handling and maneuvering it while scanning five mirrors every five to eight seconds, a driver obviously cannot react to every sight and sound, or every single thing a passenger might say. This is because reacting to anything other than driving is necessarily a distraction – and distraction can, by itself, begin the tailspin of events that lead to a serious accident or incident. So every driver must judge whether or not to react to various pieces of information and stimuli. Sometimes, this judgment is poor, and the failure to listen and react responsibly leads to what the injured passengers’ counsel claim is "reckless disregard." Witness these scenarios:

  • Several passengers in the rear of one motorcoach began smelling something burning, and pointed it out to the driver several times. Only several minutes later, when the passenger compartment became enshrouded with a cloud of black smoke, and passengers began screaming, did the driver stop. As his now panic-stricken load of passengers began stampeding toward its single front entrance door, a number of them were pushed down, and verily trampled, one breaking a leg and ankle in the process.
  • The somewhat-shy son of another motorcoach’s passenger who had stored her diabetes medicine in the luggage bays asked two separate drivers (on successive shifts) to stop so that he could retrieve his mother’s medication. When this youngster could not identify his mother’s luggage during a rest stop, the second of these drivers ignored his increasingly-frantic pleas as his mother’s condition worsened, and nearing the end of a 24-hour trip, she began experiencing a diabetic seizure, which triggered a heart attack that caused her to flail around and repeatedly smack against the windows.
  • In several incidents in whose lawsuits I was involved as an expert witness, would-be passengers who felt the bus or coach was leaving them behind began chasing it down the street, and smacked the side of it. Every one of them fell down and was crushed by a front or rear tire. In one case, the driver actually stopped the bus – testifying that she recognized the smack as the sound of a human hand – yet, upon looking in the curb-side mirrors, saw nothing, and instead of alighting to determine into what vacuum this mysterious passenger vanished, she simply resumed her driving and ran him over with the curb-side rear tire. In my deposition on this victim’s behalf, I opined that the 300-lb. driver was too lazy to pull her fat buttocks out of the driver’s seat. The lawsuit quickly settled for $6.5M.

Details and Pay-Offs

In a society where the difference between rich and poor is not so extreme, a far greater percentage of drivers continue in this role their entire lives. In such a society, the investment in extensive training pays off markedly. In contrast, in societies where turnover is rampant in many modes (far less a problem in the heavily-subsidized transit sector), management is hesitant to invest heavily in training, even though the failure to do so is often more costly. Not only are many details and examples omitted, but periodic and extensive retraining is almost non-existent.

Training for only the basics is a monumental problem, since the phenomena that signal an impending accident are often details. But without having been taught about these details, drivers have a squishy basis for determining when to take something seriously. Consequently, when they fail to listen, they almost certainly fail to act. In the first example above, the driver paid no attention to what he heard until he began to also smell it. In the second example, the driver mistakenly (or lazily) assumed that a passenger’s multiple pleadings for help were his merely "crying wolf." In the third example, the driver made a token response to what she heard but then failed to react to what she should have been surprised to not see.

These poor judgments play particularly poorly in a courtroom because they violate one of our few hundred clichés: ‘Tis better to err on the side of caution." The fact that poor judgments often have their roots in fatigue, abysmal drivers’ salaries, schedules that are too tight and/or non-existence monitoring – my "Four Horsemen" noted above – hardly excuses the driver’s more obvious error or omission. Instead, when the incident morphs into its inevitable lawsuit, the driver’s failure to listen or bother leads the plaintiff’s expert to explore the underlying "Horsemen," and finding them present magnifies the damage award (or inflates the settlement in lieu of it). It is no surprise that another of our clichés is, "The devil is in the details."

Big Hits and Bad Investments

When the lawsuits related to the rash of recent catastrophic motorcoach accidents we have experienced – mostly in the Northeast – begin unfolding, we can be sure that two themes will emerge in most of them: (a) The driver failed to pay attention to some detail, and (b) one or more of the "Four Horsemen" were slithering around in the background.

When the dust has settled over these lawsuits, and others like them, it will confirm once again that our investments are out of balance with their pay-offs. We obviously cannot count on higher insurance premiums to "encourage" more management involvement, higher drivers’ salaries or, in some modes in particular, more realistic schedules. Such dynamics do not exist, since as almost everyone learned from at least one noteworthy bail-out, insurance premiums are merely seed money for investments. But without any such dynamics, and with the imposition of criminal penalties in even catastrophic accidents rare, we must rely simply on more and better effort.

Sometimes there are simply no easy answers or magic bullets. But if the consequences of failure upon failure are not yet clear from the collapse of our housing and financial sectors, the debacle of unemployment in the construction industry (much less our current level of unemployment overall) and the recent lowering of our nation’s "credit rating," we should not be surprised if our continued failures in the passenger transportation sector yield similar results. Profit margins, management structures and drivers’ salaries are thin enough. If ridership begins to decline – what transportation folks refer to as "thinning our density" – the motorcoach sector will be cruising along on some pretty thin ice. Weighing more than 20 tons, many of them are certain to fall through.

Certain sectors of the passenger transportation industry, like the school bus sector, are much luckier than we are: That community lies about the magnitude of its fatalities and serious injuries, and everyone within and outside the community believes it. And the incidents the school bus sector experience generally involve a single individual, and thus do not grab the headlines that catastrophic motorcoach accidents so. But, like us, without subsidies, the school bus sector is becoming desperate financially, and the evidence of it – like the consolidation of bus stops (a measure with almost negligible payoffs from the fuel savings of fewer accelerations and longer intervals between "brake jobs") – illustrates how impossible it is to accomplish anything meaningful once the break-even point begins bearing down on us.

Improving customer service and expanding marketing efforts are not effective responses to the increasingly common news about catastrophic accidents. A far better response is to dig in our heels and start doing a better job executing the fundamentals of operations, and spending more time learning about the details and the importance of paying attention to, and responding to, them.

Publications: National Bus Trader.