Precision and Virtuosity

Among the generalities that govern our lives, we are little beyond the sum of our experiences. How one understands the motorcoach industry has a lot to do with what one experienced along the way. Because my transportation industry background began with transit and paratransit service, I have a somewhat different slant on the importance of certain system design and operating principles. Among them is my preoccupation with the importance of precision and virtuosity.

While definitions vary, one can define virtuosity as the articulation of a task with precision. The value of virtuosity lies beyond minimizing liability exposure. Of equal importance is the fact that good drivers respect the insistence on virtuosity and the pursuit of excellence, and enjoy being part of them. In paratransit service, virtuosity often revolves around a tight, efficient, orderly and realistic schedule. In motorcoach operations, it often focuses on the concern for and articulation of helpful and trouble-free transitions to and from the vehicle.

In the provision of most services, one cannot get carried away with an endless obsession for detail. One must pick and choose his or her obsessions carefully. As safety and liability go, one of the most critical aspects of precision in public transportation service is where the driver stops his vehicle to board and alight passengers.

Imprecision and Incidents

In coursing through the hundreds of lawsuits I have been involved in, practically one sixth of them involved either management’s negligence in selecting the stop or a driver’s failure to precisely adhere to it. As examples:

  • At a busy urban transfer point where the stop zone was permeated by pay-phone booths, sculptures and other obstacles, a transit driver failed to align his front cap with the bus stop sign and pull parallel to the curb. Striking a mailbox, the rear door could not completely opened, and an alighting passenger was forced to squeeze into the trapezoidal wedge of space in the gray area.
  • Approaching a far-side stop, another transit driver got caught in a red light, and discharged his passengers on the near-side, adjacent to a coned-off construction zone. An 87-year-old woman alighted through the rear door and immediately stepped into a patch of recently-poured wet cement.
  • Similarly discharging on the wrong side of the intersection after getting caught in the light, another transit driver managed to pull his bus part-way to the curb. A stream of passengers alighting through the front door discovered themselves stepping into the gray zone only while doing so, and one of them stretched toward the curb – only to step onto loose, cracked, chipped and broken curb fragments.
  • A paratransit driver pulled parallel to the curb in a suburban neighborhood, and then backed up to align his passenger door with an elderly passenger’s driveway. After opening the door for her, the driver assisted the passenger onto the sloped, diagonal edge of her driveway where it met the street.
  • Instead of pulling into the congested bus stop from which he would have to merge back into the traffic stream, a transit driver discharged his passenger while in the travel lane. Not realizing there was yet another travel lane to the bus’ left, one alighted passenger noted no oncoming traffic, crossed in front of the bus, and was promptly run down by a vehicle passing the bus in the outer lane.
  • Caught in the red light before a far-side stop, a transit driver discharged several passengers through the front door. Needing to cross, the first of them noted the green light, stepped in front of the bus and began trotting across the roadway. Soon after she stepped off the curb, the light changed, and a motorist traveling alongside the bus accelerated through the light, mowing the pedestrian down as she stepped out from the front of the bus.
  • Trying to avoid having to haul a coach full of luggage around the vehicle in a light snow flurry, a motorcoach driver meandered his vehicle through the grounds of a hotel so that he could unload his passengers and their luggage beneath a canopy opposite the hotel lobby – instead of onto a cleared ramp directly in front of it. An elderly passenger alighted, crossed the icy roadway, and tripped stepping up onto the curb.
  • Following another snowstorm, an assisting living home’s shuttle bus driver pulled up and discharged an elderly passenger into a snow bank – instead of pulling one bus-length further forward into the cleared zone of a fire hydrant. Understandably, the passenger could not negotiate his way through the ice-crusted snow bank, slipped, and slid to the pavement at breakneck speed.
  • Because different students attended after-school activities on different days, a schoolbus driver doing a “late run” found himself with a thin load. So in dropping off his students, he skipped several unneeded stops, altered his route, approached a bus stop from the opposite direction, and dropped off a sixth-grader a block away from, and caddy-corner to, his designated stop. Crossing the congested roadway whose traffic levels comprised the principal rationale for his regular stop’s selection, the student was run over by a pest truck whose driver was chatting on a cell-phone.
  • On a late-night run, approaching a marginally-illuminated, coned-off construction zone, a transit driver discharged an ambulatory disabled passenger from the travel lane. The passenger took two steps toward the curb and promptly dropped into a trench.
  • Failing to pull his bus off the road adjacent to a bus shelter, a transit driver’s bus was struck from the rear by a 78-year-old motorcyclist who didn’t realize the bus had stopped. The impact was so severe that the cycle ruptured the bus’ cooling system, and knocked it forward 20 feet. Stricken with remorse over this error and the motorcyclist’s death, the bus driver committed suicide.

Where the passengers were not killed outright, mutilated or transformed instantly into quadriplegics, they suffered just so many broken ankles, legs, knees and hips – often deteriorating into a slow, painful death. With older passengers, broken hips are often a death sentence: Particularly for individuals with diabetes and/or undergoing dialysis treatment, the risk of infection is great with or without surgery. As a liability matter, elderly victims dying a slow, painful death are far more costly than those simply killed. But this dynamic is far more severe when a relatively young accident victim is integrated into the ranks of the Permanently Disabled and faces a life time of around-the-clock nursing care.

Replays and Regrets

In the provision of public transportation, there is no such thing as an easy button. Operating a bus or motorcoach is arguably more challenging than operating an aircraft. But a principal risk of both is landing.

Much of the precision needed while driving is obvious: Stay on your own side of the road, manage the space around your vehicle to the degree possible, get a good night’s sleep, and pay attention to everything around you at all times. Compared to these tasks, pulling into the bus stop is child’s play. Yet the number of incidents that occur when stops are not executed properly is vastly disproportionate to the comparative degree of difficulty.

Unlike the easy button, there actually is a do-over button. It is called a law suit. Unfortunately, the individuals participating in it have to relive the incident pretty much the way it happened, despite efforts to spin the nuances. While the importance of doing many or most things properly and prudently can mean a lot, the devil is in the details, as they say. Placing a single, tiny error in the perspective of a well-run and well-intended system goes only so far. The jury needs little time to understand the importance of the specific errors or omissions that led to an incident, no matter how minor they may be in perspective. A single mistake can outweigh a bundle of good intentions and a celebration of excellence.

Truth in Advertising

If there were any real truth in advertising, someone’s slogan would surely be, “We get the phone.” We have never heard or read such a claim because no modern American company is willing to make a commitment to anything like this.

By comparison, even when a transportation agency or company overtly promises nothing in terms of safety, it is almost always held to the standard of a “common carrier” – effectively the highest duty and standard of care. When a driver fails to plant his vehicle at point X – something the most inept juror-motorist can do on a bad hair day – excuses and alibis fall upon deaf ears.

As in most efforts and activities, some aspects of providing transportation have to be executed exactly as proscribed. Apart from the obvious carnage to the victims, the perpetrators often pay dearly – sometimes with their businesses. But almost always with a lifetime’s profusion of what-if memories.

Most good bus drivers care about the importance of details, and are proud to be cogs in the intricate wheels of a complex transportation system whose service is delivered with a visible degree of virtuosity. But this responsibility must be conveyed, monitored, evaluated, supervised and enforced. When it is not, the message sent is that the importance of details is marginal. As we well know, it is hardly marginal to an accident victim or his or her attorney.

Publications: National Bus Trader.