Renegades and Risks

Sometimes an outstanding safety record is not enough. Now is one of those times. Facing more new risks and costs, the U.S. motorcoach industry is urgently examining what to prize and what to jettison. One element we cannot continue to indulge is our renegades – a small cadre of operating scoundrels who jeopardize our survival, undermine our credibility, and increase our costs. These operators’ characteristics appear to correlate little with company size, ownership structure or any other broad variable. A rare incident illustrates the problem.

The Burning Bus

A minibus transporting 20 foreign dignitaries to a gambling mecca as part of a five-day charter run began on the driver’s third day on the job. As the bus pulled into shopping center, its front end burst into flames which engulfed the entrance doorway and melted the parking brake cable. Legally unqualified to drive the bus, unable to engage the emergency brake, and only vaguely familiar with the bus’ characteristics, the driver could not keep it from rolling backwards. By the time a bystander had doused the flames with a single fire extinguisher, and wedged it behind a curb-side tire as a wheel chock, most of the passengers had jumped out the windows – sustaining a number of serious injuries in the process. The bystander then rescued the driver – who was unable to unfasten his own seatbelt. In the ensuing panic, the driver walked into a nearby office and took a nap. (The night before, he had taken a handful of his passengers on a special excursion – off-the-books.) Needless to say, the driver provided no assistance in evacuation. Nor had he discussed emergency procedures before the trip began.

The labyrinthine lawsuit which followed drew in the operating company, the chassis manufacturer, the body manufacturer, the dealer and an independent maintenance facility – not to mention the driver and the tour guide (who had darted off the stepwell at near-warp speed). The spectrum of co-defendants, and the difficulty of assigning blame, were compounded by a range and variety of negligence that encompassed practically every operating function.

Most defendants’ theory of the case revolved around a battery cable dangling too close to the exhaust manifold – although how it got there was never clearly established. Combing through scores of photographs, I noticed that the engine compartment’s burn pattern seemed to emanate from what I perceived to be a tiny hole in an oil hose – which likely sprayed the engine compartment for a few seconds, creating the flash which, among other things, melted the plastic ties used to clamp the battery and parking brake cables. While recall and warning notices about battery cable positioning had been issued, responsibilities for monitoring their acknowledgement and compliance were fragmented among the manufacturing and aftersales organizations, all of which blamed their fellow-organizations. By the time I was deposed, many of the defendants had settled out of the case; the remaining parties did so shortly thereafter.

Not being an automotive engineer, I did not speculate on design, maintenance or commercial issues and, instead, focused on the litany of errors and omissions at the operating level. Apart from not stealing the bus, the operating company had complied with practically no regulations of any kind – even though it was cited for numerous violations year after year, often by the same highway patrol officers. Critical operating functions like screening, training, monitoring, evaluation, supervision and enforcement were non-existent. Logs revealed many drivers on duty for 20- to 30-hour periods. Not once had the undergone preventive maintenance within the prescribed 45-day intervals. Many recommendations for repairs were ignored.

Had he been licensed to operate this type of bus, and been marginally familiar with its characteristics, the driver might have realized it was diesel-powered, its fuel tanks lay behind him, and there was minimal fuel in the engine compartment lying alongside him. Thus, the likelihood the bus would explode was remote, the flames would likely last only a few seconds, and a quick dousing by fire extinguisher would probably eliminate them immediately – which indeed happened when a bystander discharged one. The fact that the driver was apparently too weary to remove his own seatbelt or remain awake shortly thereafter – and the fatigue-implications of these failures – apparently went unnoticed by attorneys of the manufacturing, dealership and maintenance-related co-defendants.

Spoiling the Barrel

My decades of experience in the passenger transportation field suggest that few operators are nearly this incompetent, ruthless or indifferent. But given the motorcoach industry’s fragmented structure, and its thousands of tiny operators, even the handful of dregs whose operations pose such risks may escape serious incidents – and serious notice – for years.

These dynamics pose a serious dilemma for underwriters: Neither the motorcoach industry nor its regulatory agencies can monitor and enforce every nuance of operations. Yet if underwriters or their agents devoted extraordinary attention to them, premiums would rise, and the underwriters would risk losing business to competitors with lower rates who spent fewer resources to address the problems. Over the long run, of course, the insurance industry identifies high-risk operators, and helps weed them out. Along the way, and particularly when these efforts fall short, the entire industry suffers: Manufacturers and dealers are dragged into costly and risky lawsuits. Insurance premiums increase for every operator. And the industry is periodically trashed by press and media which often fail to place events in context, identify their causes, or cover the technical issues with adequate specificity.

Unusual Models

Clearly, the mechanisms we have in place to excise the industry’s bandits are working to some extent. Otherwise, the outstanding safety record we enjoy would not have materialized. But these mechanisms have their limits. A handful of models proven successful in other arenas illustrate what else can be done:

  • Bicycle Club. This aberration of my childhood forced every student to register his or her bicycle, and riding privileges were suspended through a series of points accumulated when students tattled on cyclists for every offense from “riding double” to dirty reflectors. A few squealers were pummeled by bullies. But no one had a serious bicycle accident.
  • Non-conforming Vans. The pupil transportation community and NHTSA recently redoubled their efforts to eliminate non-conforming vans from the school bus landscape – including assessing heavy fines to dealers selling them.
  • Investing some Skin. With the increasing frequency and size of damage awards in paratransit cases (mostly involving negligent wheelchair and passenger securement), some underwriters have begun to either wean themselves from such operations altogether – placing pressure on lead and operating agencies to either fix or self-insure them – or to increase their clients’ deductibles substantially.

Yet even these dramatic measures can fall short. In the case cited above, the operator compensated for his nearly $30,000-per-year-per-bus premiums by eliminating virtually every non-physical aspect of operations. He dealt with customer dissatisfaction and complaints largely by ignoring them and, instead, established a subsidiary tourist agency in the home country of his one-trip-per-lifetime passengers. And he responded to repeated violations by abandoning vehicle registration.

Priorities and Perspective

All this is troublesome on its own terms. It is particularly problematic in the post-September 11th World: As many sources have pointed out (albeit citing different figures), something like 40 percent of the World’s terrorist attacks (at least in the past decade) have been perpetrated on buses. Were acts like this even attempted in the United States or Canada, the other safety issues which pale by comparison would be discussed ad nauseum, and their significance exaggerated exponentially. Were this to happen, our house had better be in order.

We would do well to revisit the value of a spectrum of mechanisms and remedies we may have ignored, overlooked or dismissed. And we would do well to reexamine our traditional views of existing ones. Along such lines, the continued examination of our industry by the NTSB, NHTSA and, particularly, FMCSA, may prove to be a blessing: It may help rout the renegades.

In these troubled times, we need to overturn every stone, find every bug, and examine every antenna. We could not afford renegades in the best of times. We really cannot afford them now.

Publications: National Bus Trader.