Safety Compromises, Part 6: Failing to Pull to the Curb

Other than airport-to-parking lot shuttles, and an occasional tour or charter trip, all public transportation services pickup and discharge their passengers at the side of a roadway. When it is available, they pickup and discharge them from or  onto a curb, sidewalk, platform or other raised surface.

Reasons for this practice range from the ease of entry onto or alighting from a stepwell or doorway to protecting the passenger from being struck by another vehicle passing the bus, coach, van, minibus or taxi on the right (to or from which the passengers board or alight). Where a curb or other raised surface is available, pulling adjacent to it also decreases the distance from the vehicle’s floor surface or bottom step to the stop surface below. On vehicles with kneeling features, this distance can be decreased another four or five inches when air is released from the curb-side front air bag (or on transit buses configured to kneel the entire curb side, from the curb-side  rear air bag as well).

Time, Space, Ease and Safety Compromises

Unless an unwelcome vehicle is inappropriately parked in the pickup or discharge area, it would seem almost effortless to pull even a large vehicle to the curb. Yet this is not always the case. A 40-foot-long vehicle requires roughly 90 feet of “bus zone” to pull its front door adjacent and parallel to the curb (ideally between six and 12 inches from it to not risk tossing standees forward should the vehicle’s right-front tire actually strike the curb). To align the rear door of a transit bus against and parallel to the curb requires roughly 120 feet are needed. The zone needed is even longer for an articulated bus with a rear door. (Some have only a middle door.)This space is not always available.

Far more a factor than spatial availability is time constraints. While pulling into an unobstructed stop takes almost no time, pulling out of one can take a considerable amount of time. This is particularly true if the vehicle has to pull back into the traffic stream. When the schedule is already tight under the most perfect conditions (typical of most routes in many or most urban transit systems), drivers may be unwilling to risk spending the time needed to perform this maneuver safely. Not pulling the vehicle to the curb conveniently eliminates this segment of time. Of course, it does so at the expense of placing boarding and alighting passengers at risk, since they must now enter the vehicle from, or alight from it onto, the roadway surface. Even the first passenger off the bus or coach may not stop to determine how far away the bottom step or floor surface is from the curb, and/or how far they lie above the roadway. Few alighting passengers know whether or not a bus or coach with a pneumatic suspension system has been kneeled. And few buses, obviously with rear doors from which most passengers are encouraged to alight, are configured to kneel at the rear door — another fact far more obvious to public transportation providers and their drivers than to their passengers.

This guesswork is exponentially more risky for a passenger who is not the first to alight. Typically closely-spaced together as they alight, all but the first bus passenger will not likely know how far from the curb the rear door is, or how great is the drop is to the ground surface below, until he or she is in mid-air between the door (or floor level at the rear of a low-floor bus) and the surface below. Particularly when the bus is parked in the “gray zone” (between one and four feet from the curb), the passenger may be tempted to stretch out or leap to the curb, a mild risk at best and a gymnastic stunt at worst. Keep in mind that the gray zone is effectively a gutter, and may be filled with or covered by mud, water, ice or tightly-packed, plowed snow.

Stepping into the gray zone from an un-kneeled bus or coach poses a risk for a gymnast or acrobat. It poses an exponentially greater risk for a passenger who is elderly and/or disabled. So pulling to the curb is no small matter for a public transportation mode, like motorcoach service, for which sixty percent of the passengers are elderly.

For these and other reasons (most importantly the challenge of pulling back into the traffic stream from a curb lane or road shoulder), schoolbuses in many states are required to stop in the travel lane. This practice reduces certain risks. For example, with a single travel lane in each direction, not pulling to the  curb discourages motorist “pass-bys” through the red flashers and stop arms. As a trade-off, the passengers (often small children) must step down 14 inches from the bottom step: No schoolbus has a true pneumatic suspension system that can kneel the bus at the front door. And no low-floor schoolbuses (other than a few ramp-equipped van- or minibus conversions deployed mostly for special education students) exist at all.

Nosing In and Tuning Out

One common and profoundly dangerous stunt common to many large vehicles (buses, motorcoaches and full-size schoolbuses) is the practice of “nosing in” — pulling the nose of the bus to the curb on an angle. This might at first seem natural for a motorcoach or a schoolbus, since with no rear door, no one can alight from the rear. And nosing in leaves the tail of the bus or coach partly in the roadway. So this practice may stop some traffic approaching the vehicle from behind — eliminating the bus or coach driver’s need to pull back into traffic.

The problem is that, for other reasons, this practice is a dangerous safety compromise. First, many vehicles approaching this nosed-in vehicle from behind may swing around the left-side of it — a particular problem with schoolbuses whose passengers are taught to cross in front of the vehicle and who are invisible to motorists cruising through the red flashers and stop arms until the students pop out from in front of the bus. This practice is not even unusual with transit buses and motorcoaches, as many passengers cross in front simply because they receive no instructions not to.

Worse still, nosing in positions the bus or coach’s tail into the path that the driver would otherwise see through his or her street-side, exterior rear view mirrors. As a consequence, the driver cannot see traffic approaching the vehicle from the rear — as the bus or coach pulls out — making the pull-out dangerous under the best of circumstances, and even more dangerous when the approaching vehicle has just veered around the rear of one nosed in.

Another problem that nosing in creates for transit buses is that the area onto which passengers must alight at the rear (transit passengers are not allowed to board at the rear door because they cannot pay their fares there) is necessarily a trapezoid: Not only is it far from the curb, but the side of it that comprises the bottom step (or floor surface of a low-floor bus) is not parallel to the curb. Instead, it lies on an angle. So an alighting passenger’s right foot is even further from the curb than his or her left foot. And if this trapezoid is a small “gray zone,” it increases the gymnastic challenges beyond those associated with a rectangular gray zone.

Broken Curbs and Broken Ankles

Even when a passenger alighting into the gray zone is lucky enough to reach the curb, conditions he or she finds there  are not always accommodating:

  • In one lawsuit in which I served where the bus driver improvised a near-side stop because he was “caught in the light,” the passenger managed to reach a badly-cracked curb which shattered as she stepped into it, and the fall broke her hip, knee and femur.
  • In another lawsuit, an elderly bus passenger alighted on the non-designated far side (because the driver “made” the light) stepped into a patch of wet cement. This individual merely shattered her ankle.

In neither of these cases did the driver obviously pull to the curb. This safety compromise translated directly into additional time that the driver would then have to recover or lay over at the end of the run — in addition to avoiding the nuisance of having to stop twice at an intersection which the traffic light otherwise would have required.

Stops, Stunts and Unhappy Endings

For a motorcoach providing tour, charter or intercity service, not pulling to the curb is not an effective safety compromise because there are few stops. In contrast, motorcoaches providing commuter/express service, as well as transit and schoolbus services, provide multiple stops. So repeated failures to pull to the curb can reduce running time considerably. With an obscenely tight schedule (typical of many or most routes in most urban transit systems), repeatedly making this compromise can create or considerably expand otherwise short or non-existent recovery or layover time. The point is that these tiny safety compromises which individually save only small segments of time add up. This is part of why drivers make them so often. But it is also is why safety compromises create so many opportunities for mayhem.

As a liability matter, most plaintiffs’ attorneys do not even recognize this stunt as a safety compromise, since most attorneys only recognize an incident’s symptoms rather than its genuine causation. But those with a savvy expert may discover that this safety compromise, like the others described in this series, is the result of a schedule too tight, or in some modes (non-emergency medical services are the most notorious examples), the result of a rate structure that compensates the service provider only when the vehicle is moving. When this causation is revealed, it becomes obvious that the “symptom” was a driver’s response to constraints that were deliberate.

As most attorneys recognize, the word ‘deliberate’ is the magic word that leads a judge to instruct the jury that it can assess punitive damages against the defendant. While judges do not hand out such instructions like penny candy, the mere chance that they might creates a serious financial risk for the defendant and/or its insurance carrier.

Aberrations and Ignorance

One often finds hapless traffic engineering decisions that also dissuade bus or coach drivers from pulling to the curb. One of the most harrowing is a curb lane or parking lane more narrow than the width of a bus or coach. The major streets of San Francisco, for example, are notorious for this error: Many curb lanes are typically only seven feet wide, while a bus or coach is obviously 8 1/2-feet wide. So pulling to the curb — even when the bus pulls parallel to the curb — places two feet of it in the travel lane to its left. Motorists approaching the bus or coach from behind are often tempted to merge into the lane even further to the left, or if not, risk smashing into the street-side rear corner of the bus or coach while  trying to squeeze by it in a lane that is suddenly two feet narrower than it would ordinarily be. In such situations, buses and coaches simply stop in the travel lane — and their boarding or alighting passengers forced to walk seven or eight feet between the door and the curb now lie at risk of being struck by a vehicle passing the bus or coach on the right.

Like limit lines commonly placed unnecessarily too close to signalized intersections, such aberrations in traffic engineering are hardly rare. Unfortunately, few plaintiff’s attorneys understand these engineering errors, and simply blame the driver and his or her employer when an incident occurs. So when the choices are available, it is best to avoid pickups or drop-offs along such thoroughfares. But private contractors (including many motorcoach companies engaged by transit agencies to provide commuter/express service) rarely have such choices. Instead, they are forced to serve the stops designated by the transit agency that engaged them. Who is to blame for the incidents that occur as a result is unfortunately irrelevant for these contractors, since transit agencies force their contractors to indemnify them in their operating contracts. Occasionally, a transit agency may force its contractors to indemnify it even for errors and omissions made solely by the lead agency. These words, if to the wise, should be more than sufficient. Unfortunately, they often are not.

The unfortunate thing about compromising passenger safety for other benefits (e.g., complying with a schedule too tight, or making more money) is that those who make these trade-offs often make multiple varieties of them, and commit multiple episodes of each variety (see, as well as other articles in this series). Of course if you tempt fate often enough, it will bite you. In a courtroom, facing an aggressive plaintiff’s counsel advised by a knowledgeable expert, when a safety compromise translates into an injury,  you can expect that bite to snip off a good piece of your wallet.

Publications: Articles about Safety Compromises.