Safety and Liability: Are Increased Insurance Rates Really the Answer?

As this issue goes to press several people are already responding to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s  (FMCSA) Notice  of Proposed Rulemaking  regarding  increasing  minimum insurance levels for commercial buses. You would have to be deaf to avoid hearing the resulting cries and groans from motorcoach and bus operators, industry suppliers and others who point out that this would not only contribute nothing to safety, but for many reasons could actually compromise it – not to even mention many other ways in which these increases would harm the industry.

Compounding the extraordinary naiveté of this approach are two other quickly-approaching proposals that will, collectively, create a basketful of serious problems for the industry and its passengers, and which have almost countless dysfunctional impacts splaying out in almost all directions.  The additional unwarranted duo of counterproductive measures include plans to require the installation of three-point  seatbelts  on every motorcoach, and plans  to subject all motorcoaches to dynamic rollover testing.

Not only wiill both approaches add considerable weight to motorcoaches, and increase wear- and-tear on our nation’s rapidly deteriorating highways, but ironically, will increase their propensity to roll over in the first place (by significantly raising their centers-of-gravity). As far as pure, ridiculous waste, more than 20 years ago the TAM 252 school bus whose design I coordinated – derived from a motorcoach vehicle envelope – was subjected to a static roof-crush test (FMVSS #220) and, not only did not deflect the allowable 5+ inches that would still keep the windows  from popping out, but did not deflect at all! So one has to ask: What is driving these shenanigans?

Arithmetic Ignorance versus Reality

Current safety levels for intercity coaches are actually extremely high when compared to other forms of non-rail ground transportation. The actual reality is that the entire nation’s motorcoach indus- try experiences an average of roughly two fatal bus rollovers a year. With more than 36,000 commercial coaches on the road, this means that a coach will statistically average a fatal rollover only every 18,000 years. In fact, there are only about two accidents a year involving passenger ejections. As a consequence, passengers can and should feel pretty safe when boarding a motorcoach.

Thinking these counterproductive proposals through even further, it is almost certain that the increased costs and weight will translate into both reduced jobs (and reduced wages for those that remain), and will thin out much-needed and critical management. The specter of deferred maintenance requires too much speculation, but cannot help but become at least sporadic. These costs and safety degradations  can and will only mode-split passengers into far less safe modes of transportation.

Interesting justification for reviewing the minimal insurance mandate seems to come from an erroneous belief that there are more catastrophic bus accidents and rollovers than is actual fact. Yet a responsible and accurate examination of decades of such accidents forcefully defies the specious premises underlying the need to increase these levels.

Lancer Insurance Company, the oldest, largest most respected and largely most-trusted insurer of buses and motorcoaches in the United States recently submitted its response to Washington on this issue:

“Since we issued our first policy in 1985, we have professionally managed over 70,000 claims for the bus and motorcoach industry including nearly 24,000 occurrences involving a ride range of bodily injuries. Of this total, after applying appropriate factors for loss cost inflation, approximately one tenth of one percent of the liability occurrences we managed would have exceeded $5 million in damages.”

Lancer goes on to say: “We believe, therefore, the current mandatory liability insurance limit for bus and motorcoach operators ($5 million) is more than adequate.” Genuine data, clear thinking and corporate courage have a funny way of coming together. But when they do, they provide powerful ammunition for dismantling a genuinely stupid, unneeded and irresponsible proposal.

But do not be fooled by these statistics in isolation: Lancers has clearly made more pro-active efforts to suggest countless means of improving safety than many or most of its competitors have.

Cars and Buses

Logically, riding in buses is safer than riding in automobiles. One reason is that buses general- ly outweigh most vehicles with which they collide by a factor of 10 to one – which translates into their receiving almost a hundredth of the crash forces of their smaller counterparts. Further, the high-back, cushioned and increasingly compartmentalized seating in coaches further protects passengers in most accident scenarios, and are a significant factor in bus safety.

Regarding insurance, most motorists in the United States pay very low insurance premiums for their automobile insurance. A current review of minimum insurance requirements for the 50 states shows that minimum bodily injury amounts are typically $25,000 per person injured and a maximum of $50,000 per occurrence. Many pay only $15,000/$30,000 – if they pay anything at all. In addition, none of the states require more than $25,000 in property damage coverage.

If an automobile carrying an average of 1.2 passengers only requires a minimum $50,000 cover- age per incident (or $41,666 per passenger), then 57-passenger motorcoach filled to capacity should pay only $2,375,962 per incident. And this amount is exaggerated, proportionally, because the average motorcoach is not filled to capacity. If the coach carried only 45 passengers, it should provide only

$1,874,970 per incident in coverage – barely more than a third of what an automobile pays when it even pays $50,000/incident.

As noted, many motorists possess coverage of only $15,000 – less than one seventh per passenger than a motorcoach carrying only 45 passengers. Somehow, It seems clearly unfair for motorcoach operators to carry more than seven times the coverage of many motorists, much less twice the coverage paid by motorists who even carry $50,000 of coverage. And, this coverage is currently required despite the exponentially safer service that motorcoaches provide, including professionally-trained drivers and vehicles of substantially superior mass.

In other words, current motorcoach insurance  rates are already grossly  disproportionate  in favor of personal occupancy vehicles. Increasing rates further  would comprise little more than dis- crimination – and dangerous discrimination  in a nation  where travel  by public transportation  is encouraged, supported by significant billions of dollars of tax revenue (mostly for transit), and where the general population is struggling to own automobiles and keep up its house payments.

Subterfuge and Misdirection

As noted, the trio of proposals being promulgated or considered have severe dysfunctional consequences for not only the motorcoach industry, but the public in general.

• Three point seat belts can be of value during a rare rollover, but in other scenarios they may impede safety rather than improve it. For example, seat belts may be a negative factor in the event of a fire or other evacuation not to even mention the enormous number of trade-offs involved in the installation of seatbelts, some of which cause injuries to the passengers, particularly young passengers whose internal organs are not fully developed. And even the “envelope of restraint” between tightly-spaced motorcoach seats will not prevent their lap belt sections from accelerating the movement of the passenger ’s head into the seat back in front – even if the shoulder belt component mitigates this to some degree. Moreover, much of the interest in seat belts is a response to the Federal mandate for push-out windows  – a feature that can cause passenger ejection during a rollover, and other danger- ous consequences – like permitting fire to enter the passenger compartment, a scenario that resulted in 23 gruesome deaths in the Hurricane Rita evacuation.

• The added weight of seatbelts – particularly from the reinforced seat backs and the quintu- pling of strength to reinforce their anchorages – could add significant weight to the vehicle. The figure of 1500 pounds has been cited as a crude rule-of-thumb at this point. Yet this figure represents the weight of about six passenger, their luggage, and their seats. Now that more than 20 states have begun to place motorcoaches back on truck scales, should we be entertaining the removal of roughly an eighth of our seating?

• As noted earlier, Increasing rollover protection by increasing the weight of bus roof (to pass the dynamic rollover test proposed) is actually counter- productive. As bus roofs get heavier, significantly raising the vehicle’s center of gravity, they become more prone to rollovers. Further – and hardly a footnote in a country that cannot maintain its roadways and has 70,000 bridges in desperate need of repair  – this increased weight will cause todays coaches and buses to exceed current roadway weight restrictions, and when they do, they will accelerate the deterioration of these roadways.

Again, to offset this consequence would likely result in reducing the number of passengers that can be carried – which, in turn, would reduce the number of buses and coaches from the transportation landscape, eliminate jobs and cause passengers to mode split to less safe forms of transportation.

There are people who have observed that all three of these recent federal programs are geared to dealing with catastrophic bus accidents, in spite of their rarity. Are these actions some way of hid- ing the fact that the obvious solution to reducing catastrophic motorcoach accidents it to reduce fatigue by limiting shift inversion? Eliminating the legality of extreme shift inversions – which, by the way, our trucking industry is required to do, and which most drivers and their unions were delighted to embrace – has not only been ignored, but certain forces within the industry have actually lobbied against it, and the motorcoach industry was actually granted an exemption from any control over any degree of shift inversion.

Prevention Rather Than Cure

At least part of the difficulty in coping with these changes has been that the FMCSA was saddled with deregulation in 1982. The obvious goal of deregulation was, on the surface, an effort to cre- ate competition to reduce bus transportation costs to the consumer. However, it is impossible to avoid the obvious conclusion that deregulation would necessarily have had a negative impact on motorcoach safety. Following deregulation, practically anyone with a few thousand dollars could enter the field with a cheap bus older than most States consider still crashworthy. Since bus companies pay the same for buses, fuel, parts, office supplies, computers, taxes, facilities, fringe benefits and other cost components, the only places to cut costs are by reducing or suppressing driver salaries and thinning out management. Hence, there is a conflict between deregulation and safety that strongly suggests a need to tread carefully with  new approaches that seem seriously counterproductive, if not patently dangerous.

It is a common feeling within the motorcoach community that the FMCSA is not doing a good job of monitoring bus operations. Early in 2014 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report reviewing the FMCSA and particularly its Compliance, Safety Accountability (CSA) program. It brought out two major problems with the CSA program. One is that the criteria used are not particularly relevant to predicting crashes. The second is that there is insufficient information available to predict a forthcoming crash, particularly with smaller carriers. At least 10 national bus and truck associations (including the United Motorcoach Association and the American Bus Association) have called for the removal of CSA scores for operating companies from public view because they are unrealistic.

The bottom line here is that one simply cannot predict the likelihood of major accidents based solely or largely on roadside stops and driver log infractions. What is really needed is a significant number of knowledgeable motorcoach experts who visit the operators to evaluate their procedures, including preventive maintenance and vehicle inspections, driver assignment approaches and prac- tices, hiring and retention policies, training and re-training, scheduling and dispatching, trip reservation and acceptance policies, monitoring and evaluation, and other aspects of operations that govern the risks of a coach being involved in an accident. Someone who really understands the dynamics of motorcoach can visit a bus garage and know within hours whether that company is at risk for having a catastrophic accident. The “track record” approach employed by the industry has shed a lot of light on certain trends, as the Lancer ’s data cited above well illustrate. But vehicles do not operate in isola- tion, and the risks they face on the road are many and diverse – and usually unpredictable.

Driving for too many hours is certainly dangerous, and the currently hours-of-service regula- tions do much to curtail this – although, in truth, most drivers get very tired after 10 hours of driving and 15 hours on duty, and to a certain degree, this problem will take care of itself. One can only stay awake for so long. An important 1914 study of factory workers demonstrated that factory productivity fell off dramatically during the night with  consecutive hour of work. Far more important is that drivers should not be operating 45,000-pound vehicles with 57 passengers during periods when their bodies should be, and the day before, were sound asleep. It is not a mere curiosity that most cata- strophic motorcoach accidents involve single-vehicle accidents, not vehicle-to-vehicle collisions. Instead, these accidents reflect the fact that, in most cases, the drivers simply fell asleep at the wheel.

It is time to recognize that our current hours-of-service regulations address only one aspect of driver fatigue – the duration of driving and remaining on duty. They do not address the fact that many drivers are on the road when their bodies are or should be sound asleep. Problems like the exemption from shift inversion constraints coupled with the absence of regulations, and the rarity of attempts to prevent Obstructive Sleep Apnea form a dangerous due that verily invites serious accidents. Worst, particularly given the technology to monitor and measure it, there is no effort being made to determine whether a driver even gets a good night’s sleep before his or her next shift begins.

It is not the occasional driver who drifts off into dreamland along our highways and byways that is our industry’s major problem. it is our regulators who are asleep at the switch and who fail to address the important causation of our problems, while proposing a cluster of, frankly, stupid ideas that will add nothing to the solution, while they will cause additional problems. And it is also a glar- ing failure of the members of our industry who fail to point this out.

Publications: National Bus Trader.