Repositioning and Regret: Deviating from the Route and Schedule

When a public transportation vehicle has pulled into its stop less than perfectly, its driver sometimes makes subtle adjustments to improve its positioning. These short, momentary aberrations often create significant risks because would-be passengers are not expecting them. For example:

  • A transit bus pulled into a heavily-used downtown stop. After closing the doors and initially pulling out, the driver came to an intermediate stop – presumably to gauge his ability to merge into the traffic stream – instead of inching out incrementally and then accelerating into the first safe gap. A three-year-old and her nanny who had just missed the bus interpreted its first hesitation as an attempt to stop to pick them up. When the bus lurched forward again, the child pulled away from her nanny’s grasp, rushed forward, and slapped the side of the bus. The bus’ movement spun her around, and her torso landed just in front of the curb-side, outside rear tire, which crushed her pelvis.
  • After school, a school bus pulling into a crowd of athletes and fans waiting to be shuttled to a nearby athletic field stopped near the middle of the bus stop zone. Observing a second school bus approaching from the rear, the first bus’ driver moved his bus forward a few feet. In response to the bus’ initial stop, a crowd of students had surged forward, and one student tripped or was pushed down onto the sidewalk near the curb. As the bus moved forward, it crushed the student’s skull hanging over it.
  • A paratransit vehicle nearing its destination stopped a few vehicle-lengths short of a medical facility’s entrance to needlessly obey a yield sign. Thinking this pause represented her destination, an elderly passenger unfastened her seatbelt and arose to begin the alighting process – only to experience the vehicle lurching forward, seconds later, toward a more precise positioning at the destination, and knocking her off her feet in the process.
  • Another paratransit driver stopped one house-width before his destination, walked back to an elderly walker-user unable to unfasten her seatbelt, undid her belt, and helped stand her up. Out of his side-vision, the driver spotted a truck approaching the corner, and realized that he had not allowed the truck or any other potential fellow vehicles enough room to make the tight right turn. So he let go of his passenger and walked back to the driver’s compartment in order to inch the bus forward a few feet. The moment he let go of his now-standing passenger, she dropped to the floor like a stone.

Faux Lessons from Other Modes

Most of us have witnessed news footage of famous tragedies where repositioning either failed or was not a sensible option to begin with. Planes have overshot the runways of aircraft carriers. Helicopters have missed their often tiny rooftop helipads. Space shuttle appendages have failed to dock. And NASCAR drivers have overshot their pits – occasionally mowing down their or their competitors’ pit crews. These episodes are considerably different than those cited above because those awaiting these vehicles’ or appendages’ positioning are not only professionals, but professionals anticipating these adjustments.

Bus passengers are generally not members of the same class of victims. Most importantly, many of them do not anticipate vehicle repositioning but, instead, react or respond to the bus, coach, van or minibus’ initial positioning as its single and final stop. When the vehicle is then repositioned, its would-be passengers can be taken by surprise, and unlike the vehicles and their drivers, do not or cannot make the adjustments needed to avoid injury. The volume of quirky readjustments is compounded by the increasingly-tight schedules of most modern passenger transportation services, and their drivers’ tendencies to zoom in and out of stop zones as fast as they can.

Sacrificing the Vulnerable

A common theme illustrated by the four incidents cited above is that all four of their victims were either pre-school students, schoolchildren, elderly passengers or disabled passengers. This mix of anxious or senile passengers comprises ninety percent of all motorcoach riders.

While more alert or athletic passengers might have avoided any or all of the incidents noted above, civil laws require public transportation organizations and other tortfeasors to “take the victims where they find them.” This principle is commonly known in legal parlance as the “eggshell doctrine.” In essence, the limitations or disabilities of the passengers are not a defense to a driver’s or system’s errors or omissions. In contrast, these limitations translate into the driver’s responsibility to exercise a heightened degree of vigilance, and to provide a higher standard or duty of care. This standard or duty usually anoints public transportation services as “common carriers.” In a courtroom, their drivers, owners and management are held to a significantly higher standard of care than a typical motorist operating his or her personal vehicle.

Skill and Second Chances

Pulling into a stop perfectly the first time is what separates the terrific drivers from the rank and file. This is not to say that some last-minute adjustments are never needed: Many times they are. But when they are, these adjustments must mitigate risk – not create or increase it. Where there are no redeeming justifications for a vehicle’s repositioning, its driver, owner and management are exposed to the risks of liability when that repositioning leads to an injury.

When you must reposition your vehicle, for whatever reason, it is of paramount importance to “clear your mirrors,” engage every appropriate light and signal, and make sure that the information conveyed to individuals both inside and outside the bus is both appropriate and unambiguous. While your second chance at positioning the bus may work for you and your vehicle, it may not work well for passengers, motorists or pedestrians. If you fail to ensure that it does, U.S. courts and juries will have little pity on you or your employer, and the remedies meted out can be costly and disruptive. For a driver responsible for the carnage, one tiny mistake can haunt you for the remainder of your life.

Publications: National Bus Trader.