Puzzling Circumstances and Limited Information

If your motorcoach is involved in a serious accident, the title of this articles is not what you want to hear the plaintiff’s counsel include in his or her closing argument. Unfortunately, it is not often employed – except when I am on the plaintiff’s side of such a case and I am given permission to dig deeply into the case. Where big money is involved, experts are usually permitted to actually do some work.

One anomaly about catastrophic motorcoach accidents is that, unless one lives in a major city, these things rarely happen in the town practically next door. But a few months ago, the local news exploded with guesses and (mostly) questions about one that occurred only a few miles away from my home – about 90 minutes northwest of New York City – referred to as the Farmingdale Bus Accident (which occurred on I-87 westbound, near Middletown. (Farmingdale is the city of the trip’s origin.) Inundated with limited information and lots of speculation, I decided to investigate a bit further – and am still awaiting a final report about it when the National Transportation Safety Board eventually releases it.

Fortresses and Breeches

There are a handful of simple and important reasons why motorcoaches are so safe and major accidents are so rare. A major one is their mass: Impact forces between colliding vehicles are crudely proportional to the inverse of the square of their respective masses. In plain language, if a 5000 lb. SUV collides with a 50,000 lb. fully loaded motorcoach, the impact forces on the SUV are not ten times those exerted on the coach. They are a hundred times those exerted on the coach. Conversely, those exerted on the coach are a hundredth of those exerted on the SUV.

Then there is the structure. To accommodate those who do not like foul language, motorcoaches are brick outhouses [sic] on wheels. Their thick frame members, including many oblique/diagonal members absorb impact forces. Of equal mass throughout the vehicle (known as “integral construction”), a motorcoach cannot come apart in a collision like an automobile or body-on-chassis bus or minibus can; the structure can only deform. The glass (certainly the windshield) is often shatterproof (it can only spiderweb). Eight oversized rubber tires support it in normal operating conditions. And a reinforced roof with crossmembers spanning it typically at two-foot intervals supplements the sheet metal: Thus, the roof generally deforms during even a 180-degree rollover, although the deformation is often minimal. Finally, the forward-facing-only seats are generally padded, and passengers are not permitted to ride as standees (a few transit agencies deploying them make exceptions).

But every incident does not involve a collision. There are other vulnerabilities. These relate mostly to failures in maintenance – sometimes reflecting a lack of resources, a lack of effort or what attorneys’ term “reckless disregard.”

And then, of course, there are drivers, whose fatigue is marginally regulated in this country and whose wages lie far below the level necessary to consistently engage those who might prefer a reasonably comfortable life.

According to a local Hudson Valley newspaper, The Times Union, the “Farmingdale Bus Accident” of September 21, 2023, which killed two teachers, and critically injured five students on a field trip to a band camp, was transporting 40 students and four adults. ABC TV news quickly suggested that a blown front tire was a factor in the incident, but considered it “premature” to attribute it as a cause. (For a good photo, see https://www.timesunion.com/hudsonvalley/news/article/farmingdale-bus-crash-accident-report-ntsb-18423860.php). NTSB Investigator John Humm suggested that the vehicle’s operating company and constraints to timeliness of emergency response were also factors – although the latter of these seems curious given only two fatalities (both passengers were seated in the same frontal area) and the fact that all the other injured passengers recovered (most fully) – the first of curiosity is that the coach did not collide with anything, but rolled over laterally. But the median strip into which it rolled was a deep ravine.

According the findings that the NTSB insisted were only preliminary, the coach crossed over from the right lane of a divided highway and crashed through a roadside cable barrier, tumbled down the sloped median, and came to rest on its curbside, roughly about 50 feet from the left-hand border of the left, westbound lane. Frankly, this scenario – crossing from the right lane to roll over beyond the left lane, and especially the existence of a roadside cable barrier – seemed farfetched.

Initial blame was also placed on the absence of a crash gate onto the freeway, whose presence would have allegedly sped up the response time of rescue vehicles – although the superficial evidence did not explain how their arrival five to 10 minutes earlier would have mattered. (Of course, a bill to install a means of more quickly circumventing a nearby crash gate or two was quickly introduced.) Frankly, I do not recall even knowing about such a feature. But now that I do, I fail to understand why it would take rescue personnel five to 10 minutes to unlock one. So much for initial investigations, disclaimers notwithstanding

Vehicle and Driver Vacuum

The preliminary investigation found that the operator was on the State’s list of “unacceptable operators” for failing five of 15 semi-annual department inspections over the past year. Yet apparently purchased used by the operator, the coach was inspected barely a month earlier and passed that inspection – illustrating either how insufficient or superficial inspections are or how quickly and irregularly some safety-related features of large vehicles can deteriorate. In a number of random roadside inspections since 2021, the coach passed each time.

While the news media quickly blamed the rollover on a blown front tire, there was no evidence of any obstacle on the freeway that could have immediately punctured the tire, much less to practically blow it apart. Further, initial TV images of the coach showed both front tires to be round: Even if underinflated, they were clearly not “blown.” In fact, the best shot showed that the front tires were not even turned. Otherwise, if the tire (or an outside rear tire) were simply defective or under- or over-deflated, this should have been observed during the driver’s pre-trip inspection.

Even for rear dual bus, truck and coach tires, stem extensions (there are other names for this device) permit drivers to monitor the pressure of inboard tires. And many coaches contain onboard tire pressure monitors, mounted to the dashboard. I do not know if this coach had such equipment – but if it did, it does not sound as though such equipment would have been helpful in predicting a tire blow-out, particularly given the pristine condition of the roadway surface.

Not yet knowing the details, as noted, it has always been the understanding of NHTSA that far more incidents are caused by driver failure or negligence than by vehicle failures. My experience as an expert witness in roughly 700 lawsuits involving every ground transportation mode has borne this out – with the single exception of wheelchair and passenger securement equipment, often deliberately sabotaged or recklessly unmaintained in modes like NEMT service because the hapless brokers who control the service only pay the service providers when the vehicle is moving. But this particular failure in an exception restricted to only a single mode. Otherwise, apart from problems with brakes, steering systems or suspension systems (of which tires are an integral part), there are few vehicle features or components capable of causing an incident as severe as a rollover on a dry, level straightaway on a clear day.

One curious observation is evident from a photo of the vehicle placed back on the roadway on its tires. Not only, again, did this image reveal no tire damage (from this view – see note below), but the entire front cap was completely shredded (accident reconstructionists foolishly removed the components from the ravine and piled it up on the roadway directly in front of the coach). More curiously, the windshield and upper part of the front plane looked more damaged that the bumper – which appeared spliced near its midsection. But this damage could easily have occurred if the front of the coach was the first part of it that struck the bottom of the ravine (despite the coach having rolled over onto its street-side) When removed, the front door looked intact – with no deformation. Other damage – torqued body, shattered passenger windows, deflated left-front tire, etc. — appeared to be natural consequences of the vehicle’s roll into a steep ravine.

At this point in the investigation, not surprisingly, there was little information about the condition of the driver who, while seriously injured, survived the incident. In such condition, of course, a reasonable determination of fatigue would have been difficult to ascertain (the incident occurred at roughly 1 PM, an unusual time for a fatigue-related commercial vehicle incident) – although no information about the results of any blood or urine tests were revealed, nor were any impairments from a medicinal source, legitimate or illegal, disclosed.

According to CNN, the first TV station on the scene, a lawsuit was quickly filed – as one would expect – by the parents of a student severely injured, naming both the motorcoach company and the driver. Despite few eyewitness accounts, one motorist claimed that the vehicle was traveling at a speed that would induce it to veer off the road — a straightaway at the point of departure, which makes such a departure unlikely (other than if its left tire had suddenly blown out).

Clues and Conclusions

As one might suspect, at the early stages of an examination of such an incident – again, I was drawn to it largely because of its proximality to my home and office – poor speculation greatly outweighed meaningful clues. Also, given the interests of the media and press audiences along with the absence of meaningful clues, far more of the coverage dealt with the victims – again, two of whom were killed and five of whom were critically injured – than the mechanics of the crash.

But the lack of clues is not by itself meaningless. There was little or no evidence of a sloppy operation, no evidence of driver-related problems, no evidence of vehicle problems (other than speculation about the tire, no witnesses among either passengers or fellow-motorists of erratic driving, and no discernible obstacles in the roadway – straight, level, dry and with perfect visibility. This lack of clues actually does suggest an important conclusion: It is possible that something extremely minor or highly unusual caused the incident. And it is possible that no genuine cause of it may ever be found – although the NTSB will almost certainly find someone or something to blame it on. If nothing else, the entire appendices of many NTSB reports contain hundreds upon hundreds of recommendations the Board had made to NHTSA in the past which NHTSA failed to implement – recognizing, of course, that Congress must approve of anything NHTSA recommends for implementation. So it is possible that what the future reveals about this horrific and now-puzzling incident may lie along a long spectrum of things meaningful, trivial or non-detectible – the latter of which would effectively term the incident an “accident.”

While our litigious society always seeks fault – and, as noted, lawsuits have already been filed in this case – it is important to the principle of fault that there may simply not be any. The cliché “accidents happen” is a sloppy cliché that is far more often overused than it deserves to be. But it is not necessarily always wrong. The rarity of motorcoach incidents (and occasionally genuine accidents) always begs for an explanation. But it is important to remember that in a fair society that cares about accuracy rather than blame placing (which is not exactly a valid description of America), it is better to find no explanation than the wrong one. For decades now, DNA testing has proven that law enforcement agencies often prefer to blame a party, or parties, not remotely at fault than to blame no one. The civil branch of our justice system – a greatly flawed system of which I am regularly critical – does not exactly have great tools, at the moment, for determining accuracy. The zealousness of fault finding and blame placing is often skewed by the whims and randomness of cheap, lazy and often crooked attorneys and their all-too-common parrots and shills engaged as “expert witnesses.” In this environment, the liars often enjoy a good chance of “ruling the day.” Often, evidence is subject to interpretation. And often there is little evidence.

In the Farmingdale Bus Accident – an accident or incident where not a single fragrant of a clue emerged from its initial examination (including the participation of seven NTSB officials — unless they felt it prudent to not reveal evidence or hunches to the press and media), it is the hope that some meaningful and honest information emerges from the detailed examination that taxpayers hope for, and which, as a result, prevents anything similar from happening again. But if such information does not emerge, we will be better served if the powers that be refrain from a round of pin-the-tale-on-the-donkey that will benefit no one and harm those not responsible.

Particularly at the outset of an accident or incident, causation can be puzzling even to reconstruction experts. And even in a blame-placing society, there are still events that may be pure accidents.

#catastrophicmotorcoachaccidents #expertwitness #motorcoachservice #fieldtripaccidents #vehiclerollovers

 


[1] The view of the coach in the ravine showing both front tires fully inflated combined with the later view of the left front tire severely deflated in the photo after the coach was hoisted back onto its tires on the roadway suggest anything but a “blow-out.”