One Strike You’re Out: Monitoring and Controlling Passenger Behavior

Sometimes in the bus and motorcoach business, one stupid mistake is too many. This is especially true when a driver fails to stop the coach when there is good reason to. While I have defended plenty of major carriers from worthless or vacuous claims, and, on several occasions, withdrew from cases that turned out to have no merit, I have also helped sue a certain company on several occasions when the damages were moderate but the negligence large. The principal theme in all these cases was the failure to stop the coach when there was a good reason to.

  • Seated at the rear of the coach, a deeply-troubled passenger with green and orange hair was having a spat with several other passengers, and eventually walked up front to inform the driver that they were spraying her with poison. Because the driver could not get through to the dispatcher (a growing problem I come across constantly in almost every public transportation mode), the passenger simply reached beneath the senselessly-designed security gate to the driver’s compartment and unlocked it, and spent a good five minutes riding in the stepwell and spewing profanities at the passengers in the rear. On two occasions where he could have discharged her at safe places, the driver failed to, and because he could not reach the dispatcher, simply let her remain in the stepwell, hoping that she would calm down. She actually did for a few minutes, then started getting loud again and, finally, reached over and grabbed the steering wheel, and according to the driver, wrestled over it with him for two entire minutes while he failed to brake his coach from its governed speed of 70 mph. The passenger eventually won the match and steered the coach off the road and deep into the woods where it came to an abrupt stop only after crashing into a few large tree trunks. While no passengers were critically injured, the driver’s first question to the perpetrator, now resting comfortably outside the coach, was, “Do you know you just destroyed a $200,000 bus?” – a perspective one might expect from a driver who testified that the greatest danger from riding in the stepwell was a front-end collision, but qualified it by claiming that there were handrails to hold onto. This 43-year veteran driver was punished with 30 days of retraining.

  • Another of this same company’s seasoned drivers ignored an increasing number of passenger complaints about smoke in the rear of the coach. Since the coach had obviously caught fire, smoke began pouring into the passenger compartment. Yet it was only when the interior was almost completely black that the driver pulled off the road. When he finally did, the passengers verily stampeded off the bus, in the process knocking one down such that others stepped on her on their madcap dashes down the aisle. Fortunately, this victim’s foot was merely mashed, and everyone else got off the vehicle relatively safely.

  • Several years ago, in yet another similar incident I cited in a former NBT article, the same company’s driver failed to permit a diabetic’s admittedly stupid son from retrieving his mother’s insulin from the luggage compartment after several somewhat timid requests to do so, and an hour away from the destination of her 24-hour trip, she began experiencing a diabetic seizure, had a heart attack, and flailed at the windows and everything and everyone around her.

Safety and Schedule Adherence

As a forensic expert past his 400th case, I sometimes wonder why more passengers are not injured than they are, and why many are injured only moderately in some pretty severe accidents. This is certainly not always the case, as I have been involved in a good share of catastrophic accidents in which many passenger were killed, and most others mutilated. Just the same, and apart from our legal system’s way of looking at things, I sometimes wonder if some of the survivors are simply lucky, versus God having watched over them.

But under either theory, what fails to change is the inexcusable stupidity and reckless disregard for circumstances that would make almost any common motorist at least stop his or her vehicle, if not freak out altogether from things that bus and coach drivers give little thought to until their worst consequences begin to unfold. One of the ugliest aspects of this pattern – a pattern that underlies roughly half of all types of lawsuits in which I have been involved – is the preference for schedule adherence over passenger safety. This preference is relentless in transit service, where recovery time is tight even without a wheelchair user on board, such that when one comes along, the driver chooses to not secure the passenger’s chair. It is also relentless in paratransit service, since the increasing use of scheduling software combined increasingly lower drivers’ wages leads to the same omission. And numerous other tricks to protect the drivers’ “recovery time” – stopping on the wrong side of an intersection, pulling out before passengers have a chance to reach a point of seating or securement, loading walker users via the stepwell rather than the wheelchair lift, failing to pull to the curb and then failing to kneel the bus or coach – reflect this same theme. But it is less understandable in the motorcoach world, where few passengers miss their connections, and 10 or 15 minutes late on a run lasting several hours should be no big deal.

One of the practices that accounts for such problems in the motorcoach sector seems to be the misplaced emphasis on customer service over customer safety. In the eventual lawsuit, it does not serve the defendant well when merely the introductions to its training curricula and materials cite a handful of platitudes about safety, while entire sessions and chapters are devoted to customer service – including the importance of on-time performance. Even our passenger-unfriendly airline services (Southwest Airlines excluded) have figured out how to avoid this problem: Lying to the passengers, they simply pad the schedules by roughly an hour, regardless of the flight’s air time, so that after the plane is typically an hour late taking off, passengers still arrive on time. When they arrive early, they are thrilled, and never seem to understand the scam. Of course, this particular industry’s intelligentsia could increase fares a tad instead of charging fees for baggage – which translates into an onslaught of carry-ons which must be shoehorned into inconvenient places (causing considerable delays), and the failure to employ loading or unloading procedures that most school bus drivers execute routinely in evacuation drills.

Priorities and Prosthetics

Some of our technology is a wonder. And it is a blessing, albeit a bitter one, that we have become able to replace real arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers and toes with mechanical ones. But outside of warfare, where slaughter is the actual goal, such accomplishments are hardly victories. Far more often, they reflect failures to take reasonable and prudent measures, and worse, to not care much about doing so.

Because of our eye-for-an-eye legal system, these failures usually produce two layers of victims: The passengers, and the insurance companies forced to compensate them for the failures and negligence of their clients and their drivers. I often find literally scores of errors and omissions in a case, where the elimination of almost any one of them would likely have helped avoid an incident that killed or maimed a passenger or two. But there are also cases, like the three examples cited above, where a single failure translates into mayhem.

Parents teach their small children to just let the damned car roll over your ball. They are usually overjoyed to buy them a replacement. Yet somehow, after weeks of training and years of driving, our bus and coach operators have forgotten this invaluable lesson, and place their passengers at enormous risk simply to avoid inconveniences that one can genuinely describe as trivial.

As the former owner, for 10 years, of a 70-vehicle paratransit system, I am not belittling the benefits of on-time performance, and ran a system that was 99 percent on-time – almost unheard of in today’s version of the same service that is typically one-third as efficient, and one-tenth or one-twentieth as on-time. But we also terminated drivers on-the-spot for single incidents of speeding (not speeding tickets, but our “catching speeders ” simply by reviewing their drivers’ logs) or failing to secure a wheelchair (which we also caught often simply by reviewing these same logs).

All too often, mayhem boils down to misplaced priorities. We would all do better, both on the road and in the courtroom, if we kept our priorities in order, and ensured that our drivers did the same. It is similarly a shame that our reward structure is rarely designed to enforce reasonable and responsible priorities, and that our monitoring efforts contain more holes than a colander.

Publications: National Bus Trader.