Among all the safety compromises pandemic to the public transportation industry, wheelchair tipovers are, by far, the least common to the motorcoach sector compared to other services which deploy accessible vehicles. Of course, this is largely because so few wheelchair users travel by motorcoach.
But motorcoaches occasionally do transport wheelchair users. So to further bolster the superior safety record most motorcoach services enjoy compared ot most other public transportation services, it is worth spending a few moments to examine the characteristics of this compromise — especially as wheelchair tipovers are common to transit service, and motorcoach operators have increasingly been contracting with transit agencies to provide their commuter/express service.
Causes and Casualties
The failure to secure (or properly secure) a wheelchair is almost always a reflection of the time it takes to do so. This time is compounded by reimbursement structures in certain modes (e.g., non-emergency medical transportation service). Such rate structures effectively penalize services, monetarily, for their drivers’ securement of wheelchairs (when, instead, significant revenue could be obtained by the vehicle moving with a wheelchair user on board, secured or otherwise). Often, drivers cannot secure wheelchairs because the straps and hardware are missing, mismatched or broken, because securement hardware is left in floor tracks to literally rust in place, and because the tracks themselves are too filthy, rusted and/or broken for inserting a securement fitting into them. So securing wheelchairs in such vehicles (particularly in states and counties where “brokers” have been engaged to alleviate the responsibility of some state or county healthcare agency’s provision of NEMT service, and where brokers profit directly from these failures), a driver often cannot secure a wheelchair even if he or she wants to. And of course, with the chair not secured, it would make no sense to secure the wheelchair user into his or her chair with the required three-point occupant restraint system (even if it were present on the vehicle, all components of which often are not).
Passenger securement into wheelchairs is a curious phenomenon by itself. Compared to the time it takes to secure a wheelchair, the time needed for passenger securement into that chair is almost negligible. Yet almost no driver would affix a three-point securement system to a wheelchair user whose chair had not been secured. Doing so would risk garroting the passenger or breaking his or her neck. Not surprisingly, a lot of lawsuits involving wheelchair users begin only with evidence of negligent passenger securement. Yet someone like myself who inspects the vehicle, even after-the-fact, can usually tell if the chair itself was also not secured. Among the telltale signs is the omission, altogether, of the shoulder harness that is required by the ADA at all wheelchair securement positions, and by NHTSA at all seating positions in a vehicle weighing less than 10,000 lbs. GVWR (which obviously does not include any motorcoaches). Regardless, where one finds a failure to secure a passenger into his or her wheelchair, one almost always finds evidence that the chair itself was also not secured.
The failure to secure wheelchairs in fixed route transit service is not as widespread or deliberate as it often is in NEMT service. But this omission does occur, and often does, because the schedules of many transit routes, particularly in large urban systems, are hopelessly and deliberately too tight. In many systems, schedules are too tight even while other safety compromises (e.g., not letting boarding passengers reach a seat or stanchion before the bus zooms away from the stop) have already eliminated considerable running time. In this environment, loading and unloading a wheelchair consumes still more running time. Because of class action lawsuits like Beauchamp v. LACMTA, wheelchair users are rarely skipped altogether. But their chairs are often not secured properly, and are often not secured at all, because omitting this procedure eliminates considerable running time (and, inversely, helps create or expand a route’s recovery time).
Commonly, fixed route transit drivers secure only the wheel positions on the aisle-side of the chair — leaving the specter of centrifugal forces to chance. So with a chair secured against the curb side interior wall, for example, a sharp left turn will merely bang the wheelchair user’s right shoulder into the wall, and perhaps snap his or her head into the window or window post. But a sharp right turn will fling the chair violently to the left, either whipping the chair and its occupant to the floor or striking his or her head into a seated passenger or empty seat on the opposite side of the aisle — possibly breaking the wheelchair user’s neck. Either way, a serious injury or death is almost unavoidable.
Keep in mind that wheelchair users are already broken before their tipover incidents occur. (This is why attorneys refer to such individuals as “eggshells.”) Yet their pre-existing conditions do not usually lower the damages in the inevitable lawsuit. And no defendant’s attorney would pro-actively argue that their lives are worth than those of able-bodied individuals — although the victim’s pre-existing conditions can certainly be cited in court, and an occasional jury may adjust the damages downward accordingly, particular where the victim’s remaining lifespan would not have been terribly long, and filled with plenty of pain and suffering, anyway.
Mitigating Motorcoach Madness
When a motorcoach deployed in commuter/express service comes upon a wheelchair, these problems are compounded. For one thing, the “passive” lift is in the middle of the coach, and before deploying it, passengers seated in the seats in and near the securement area must be relocated to other seats, and the seats must be flipped up to expose the securement tracks and fixtures. (A few enlightened coach manufacturers have installed “quick-change” seats on the same securement tracks as are needed to accommodate wheelchairs such that a bunch of seats can quickly be pushed together, making room for the wheelchair.) Then the lift must be deployed and the wheelchair user loaded onto it, the platform raised to the floor surface, and the wheelchair pulled onto it and positioned in the securement area. Only then can the chair itself be secured into this space, and the occupant’s three-point occupant restraint attached. Forced to operate on the transit agency’s route already with a tight schedule, one can see how a driver might do a less than perfect job securing the wheelchair — although the constraints of the operating environment are hardly an excuse for exposing such a passenger to this extraordinary risk.
In contrast, both transit and motorcoach services are “common carriers,” and as a consequence, held to the highest duty and standard of care. For such reasons, a motorcoach operator should make sure its drivers never make this safety compromise. Because so few wheelchair users travel on commuter express service, running even further behind schedule than usual once in a blue moon will rarely trigger a complaint from the “lead agency.” Regardless, it would be prudent for all motorcoach companies to train their drivers to “proficiency” (the ADA standard for securement training) in wheelchair securement, and to ensure that they understand the dangerous and often costly consequences of failing to perform this task. Similarly, it is critical that all components of the equipment for accomplishing this task (including passenger securement into the chair) is available, that all the pieces fit together, that they are in clean, impeccable condition and working order, and that the securement hardware are immediately removed from the tracks once a wheelchair has been removed from them (and the vehicle) — a procedure that keeps the equipment clean, and which ensures the snug, snap-in fit of compatible fittings and floor hardware.
Fools and Folly
Anyone further interesting in more information about this safety compromise can review it in the section on wheelchair tipovers in safetycompromises.com. To delve more deeply into these details, including a sobering glimpse into the legal consequences of making this compromise, I recommend the reader consult wheelchairtipovers.com.
Some modes are known for deliberately creating tight schedules (mostly fixed route transit and NEMT service). Others end up with them because of the misplaced zeal of scheduling software developers and the “marching orders” they are given by overzealous paratransit providers (particularly complementary paratransit service, and occasionally special education schoolbus service). In either case, those in charge have effectively decided that it is more cost-effective to operate a system at the risk of the passengers than to lose the efficiencies that accrue from exposing them to these risks. This is particularly true given the marginal efforts many victims’ attorneys make to squeeze every last dollar out of defendants who committed these errors and omissions. This is true even where the defendant (most typically brokers and national mega-contractors) often have large commercial agendas at risk. But a motorcoach operator taking this risk, and making this particular safety compromise with its once-in-a-blue-moon wheelchair-using passenger, is an even bigger fool. This is because no commercial benefits accrue from taking such a risk.
It is bad enough to tarnish our industry’s excellent safety record, and risk killing or maiming an occasional passenger, in return for some form of greed. But there is even less of an excuse to do so for no purpose at all. So common sense suggests that playing fast-and-loose with wheelchair securement is a foolish choice. But common decency suggests worst things, particularly as many of these individuals were doomed to the compromised lives they lead through their efforts to defend our country and its citizens and their rights — including the right to continue operating profitable businesses like the ones afforded the operating authority and honor of serving them. We should embrace this honor, not toss it into some sinkhole of corporate profit or some bureaucracy’s cost saving agenda.