Safety Compromises Part 8: Boarding and Alighting

Given the mass of a bus or motorcoach, the carnage a moving bus or coach can inflict on a pedestrian is not surprising. Yet readers may be surprised by the carnage such a vehicle can cause when it is not moving – or just beginning to move or come to a stop.

More importantly, this latter carnage (as well as much of the collision-related carnage) is often the deliberate result of efforts to accomplish other goals at the expense of passenger safety. (See The most typical of these goals is to keep the vehicle on schedule. Often, schedules are too tight to be performed safely. This includes insufficient time for passengers to board and reach a stanchion. And it includes the practice of letting them arise and walk toward a door before the bus or coach comes to a stop.

Such standards are hardly novel. They are the universal standards for schoolbus transportation in all 50 states. And most of these passengers can fall down without getting hurt far better than can most motorcoach passengers.

Form Follows Dysfunction

Bus-related boarding and alighting incidents typically take several forms, as do motorcoaches when deployed by or for transit agencies (mostly in commuter/express mode):

• Vehicles pull away from the stop before passengers who just boarded can reach a seat or a stanchion.

• Front doors (not equipped with sensitive edges) are closed on passengers boarding or alighting.

• Curb-side front corners that should reasonably be kneeled for certain passengers, or in certain situations, are not.

• Kneeling features are configured backwards, and stepwells produce sensations like escalators for passengers ascending or descending them.

• After recognizing, or announcing their stops, passengers arise from their seats and walk forward as their buses or coaches decelerate and brake to a stop.

• Walker users are boarded and alighted via the stepwell (or onto the floor surface of a lowfloor bus, or the running board or floor surface of a high-floor van- or minibus conversion), when they should be boarded or alighted via the wheelchair lift or ramp.

Having combed through hundreds of driver training manuals in my forensic work, I have been astounded by the rarity of any mention of inertial or centrifugal forces. Apart from experiencing these forces as a child in numerous amusement park rides, they were formally explained to me in seventh grade science: My teacher filled a pail with water, slung it around his head like a windmill, and then water did not pour out. A simple explanation followed. For every action, there is a reaction, in the opposite direction.

Extending this secondary school knowledge to transportation: Passengers are at great risk riding while standing. And they are at significantly greater risk before they have attained a firm position as a standee, or released this position to walk toward a door. The principles are simple and straightforward:

• If a vehicle accelerates, objects on its surface will be thrust rearward.

• If a vehicle decelerates, objects on its surface will be thrust forward.

• If a vehicle turns left, objects on its surface will be thrust to the right.

• If a vehicle turns right, objects on its surface will be thrust to the left.

Any and every reasonable and prudent public transportation system driver should be taught about these basic forces, and the actions that drivers can take to reduce the risks when these forces are exerted on passengers – particularly when they are not seated, and even more wildly when they are not firmly-planted as standees. Regrettably, these four principles are rarely taught to professional drivers of public transportation vehicles.

In the world of lawsuits, the rarity of this training, and/or the rarity of drivers applying this knowledge, does not reflect the industry standard. As defendants usually find out, the industry standard reflects what is reasonable and prudent – not what some hapless management clown would do with a mode of transportation held to the highest standard and duty of care.

Non-Musical Chairs

Each episode of a bus or coach zooming off before just-boarded passengers can reach a seat or stanchion may save the driver 10 or 15 seconds. This interval is a bit longer on transit buses since passengers are encouraged to “take a seat” in the rear (since they cannot board at the rear, and exiting at the rear reduces dwell time). This encouragement is often depicted on signage on the bus’ “header” – enforcement that faces a boarding passenger’s back as he or she shuffles down the passenger aisle.

The reality is, of course, that buses can transport scores of people in a short run, and coaches filled to seating capacity might transport more than 53 of them (assuming some alighted before others boarded) during even a short commuter/express run. Employing this stunt on just-boarded passengers, and not letting passengers reach a seat or stanchion, a driver can chop several minutes off the route’s running time. So when an expert witness rides and times a round trip and finds no recovery time at one or both ends of the trip – even while few or no passengers were allowed to reach a seat or stanchion – it is hard to refute the conclusion that that route’s schedule was too tight. It is similarly hard to refute the fact that the “white line approach” effectively formalizes this safety compromise. As one gleeful driver (unaware of who I was) explained to me during one ride-and-time exercise, “When they step over the white line, they’re fair game.” That’s all the jury would have needed to hear.

The failure to warn or teach passengers to not arise before their bus or coach comes to a stop is similarly reinforced as a safety compromise. Particularly when deployed by transit agencies, most bus and coach drivers will not stop after being “chimed” to unless they see a passenger proactively walking toward a door in their interior, rear-view mirror. The excuse some drivers cite for this practice (to create or extend their recovery time) is that, if they simply stopped in response to every ring of the chime, the bus ride would be elongated by endless pranksters just “chimin’ away.” This alibi may work in court if the plaintiff’s counsel is a scarecrow. But it will not work with a hard-working lawyer aware of inertial and centrifugal forces.

Steps and Escalators

NHTSA regulations only require rear doors to be equipped with sensitive edges. That is because it is often difficult for drivers to view activity in, near or just outside the rear stepwell. Viewing this part of the bus is particularly difficult with standees on board: The driver must capture this image through a tiny, circular mirror near the upper front-right corner of the passenger compartment. That mirror merely captures the image captured, in turn, by a larger, convex mirror opposite the rear door. The degree of difficulty involved is like viewing small, moving objects through the wrong end of a telescope. Similarly, with a row of passengers lined up outside, alongside and close to the bus’ body between the rear and front doors, it may be difficult for driver to observe things outside the rear door.

This difficulty is hardly true of viewing passengers entering or exiting the front doors. These passengers are only few feet away from the driver’s eyeballs. With the bus or coach stopped, the driver has little else to do but watch them, along with processing fare payments (or not). All the passengers in the way will dissipate in seconds. So there is no excusable reason that a driver should close a front door on a boarding or alighting passenger. That is the reason a sensitive edge is not required on front doors – although a few more-savvy transit agencies (e.g., PACE Transit, Spokane Transit) have installed them just the same.

This problem is further compounded by the absence of an interlock configured to prevent the vehicle from moving with its front door open. I have served as an expert witness in more than one incident where the front door closed on a passenger’s arm or shoulder, dragged the passenger down the street, and when he or she broke loose, they were usually whipped beneath the bus, moments before the curb-side rear tires squished them into quadriplegia.

Passengers have a right to reasonable expectations. Beyond not having doors closed on them, one’s expectations include the vehicle’s steps not moving with someone climbing or descending them. A purchaser of buses or motorcoaches can acknowledge this expectation by configuring the front door’s kneeling feature intelligibly:

• The curb-side front corner of the vehicle must kneel before the door opens.

• This corner must not rise until the door is first closed.

When the kneeling feature’s configuration is the opposite, and the stepwell can be raised or lowered with the door open, the front stepwell can create the sensation one normally associates with an escalator. Passengers expect the vehicle to move. They do not expect the steps to. When the steps move while boarding or alighting, passengers will either tumble down the steps or practically rip their arms out of their sockets as they try to hold onto something to prevent this fall. That many passengers who occasionally confront this situation are less fit than Humpty Dumpty is an afterthought. But it is not lost on their attorneys.


Double Jeopardy

The most inexcusably dangerous bus doors I have ever encountered are the rear doors of buses deployed by a major city transit authority. While involving different manufacturers, they configure doors according to the customer’s specifications for them. Regardless, these bus doors open in two completely different ways:

• An alighting passenger can physically push them open, and even hang onto their inner handles as the bi-fold door panels conveniently swing open, effectively extending the handrails another 18 inches outside the bus. When the passenger lets go, the doors swing back quickly, like saloon doors.

• The same alighting passenger can also press on some part of several long strips of “yellow

tape,” after which the door panels immediately spring open and remain open.

In simple terms, unless a passenger is the first one off the bus at the rear door, he or she does not know whether the door panels will remain open or snap back and blast you back into the stepwell. This enigma has been replicated for decades, for this transit agency, by every bus manufacturer which has sold vehicles to it. It is not for no reason that more than half of the lawsuits on which I served as an expert against this transit agency involved boarding or alighting incidents. If you can survive boarding and alighting incidents on this city’s bus system, you can count on safely boarding or alighting from most other cities’ bus doors – at least where the front doors contain sensitive edges and interlocks.

Flat Surfaces and Bloody Noses

Facing a minimally-savvy expert witness, woe be the defendant in a lawsuit whose victim was a walker user loaded via the vehicle’s stepwell, or worse, onto a vehicle that did not even have one.

The expert needs merely to point out that if the plaintiff needs a walker to merely stand up on a flat, dry, level surface, what would make one think that this individual could climb into or out of a vehicle without a formal stepwell? In a juror’s mind, these questions boil down to something like, “How stupid can you be?”

Regulatory truth be told, a passenger from another solar system could likely board via the lift, at least according to the ADA (which understates the rights of passengers from other solar systems). Otherwise, under the ADA, any passenger or would-be passenger may ask the driver if he or she can use the lift or ramp. Thus, by law, every driver must accommodate this request – at least if it comes from an Earthling. Regardless, someone dependant upon a mobility device should not have to ask to use the lift. This concept should be taught to any and every driver by any and every reasonable and prudent transportation system’s management.

Magic Words

In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff’s counsel always searches for two magic words: ‘Willful’ and ‘wanton.’ These are fancy, legal terms for ‘deliberate.’ But they are important words in federal court and most state courts. This is because if an error or omission is deemed “willful and wanton,” the judge can instruct the jury that is may assess punitive damages to the defendant (or defendants). No instructions are more welcome to a plaintiff’s attorney’s ears than a judge telling the jury that it can award the plaintiff whatever amount it pleases.

As the old song says, “Three Little Words . . . simply mean ‘I love you’.” No one loves to hear ‘willful and wanton’ more than a plaintiffs’ attorney. Armed with proof that the incident was a safety compromise, savvy attorneys ask the judge, “Please, your honor, give my client some looooove!”

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