Serendipity and Survival: Improving the Design of Stepwells and Handrails

Serendipity is often defined as having the courage and wisdom to change those things one can, and accept those one cannot. This concept suits itself well to the prevention of motorcoach incidents.

Our obsession with liability, with those responsible for paying for it being third parties, has understandably unhealthy consequences: Liability has so vastly surpassed the concern for safety that tradeoffs of one for the other have begun to undermine both. One unnecessary and fixable example of this principle is the litany of incidents, and their inevitable lawsuits, where passengers fall down (or up) the stepwell. But the victim’s attorneys are beginning to close in on the alibis, and motorcoach operators and their underwriters are beginning, more and more, to pay for their stream of disconnected dots.

Comparable Standards of Care

As anyone who bothers quickly learns, there is a actually coherent body of knowledge about passenger handling and assistance. Formal sources for providing training in passenger handling are available and well-known (the University of Milwaukee is a notable example). In some transportation modes – paratransit, non-emergency medical transportation, and special education pupil transportation come to mind – many drivers are trained specifically in this discipline. This reality does not even factor in the tens of millions of personal home care attendants skilled in procedures from dressing to bathing disadvantaged individuals, much less moving them from place to place – including to and from toilets and showers, into and out of wheelchairs, and up and down flights of stairs.

Yet while an estimated 60% of motorcoach passengers are elderly, and other non-elderly passengers disabled, the most marginal of such training is almost non-existent in our industry. Instead, our standard practice is to help passengers up to or down from the bottom step, and otherwise remain in position to “spot” them should they come barreling down the stepwell from some point above.

Connecting the Dots

The excuses commonly cited for not providing the levels of passenger assistance common to drivers of many other transportation modes include:

  • The stepwells are two narrow.
  • There are not enough handrails for both drivers and passengers, much less on both sides of the stepwell.
  • Assisting passengers from the ground to the bottom step, and vice versa, is the “industry standard.”
  • Most modern motorcoaches contain kneeling features which simulate the height of step risers.
  • When motorcoaches contain wheelchair lifts, semi-ambulatory or other non-wheelchair-users are allowed to use them – if they happen to know they can.
  • Motorcoach drivers “spot” passengers from the bottom of the stepwells, and remain poised to catch them when they tumble down.

In response to these excuses and exaggerations:

  • Motorcoach stepwells are narrow largely because their manufacturers – at the request of their customers – have squeezed every conceivable seat into the passenger compartment. Of course, no thought has been given to accomplishing this by making the seatbacks thinner, much less genuinely compartmentalizing them (see “Buying Tomorrow’s Buses Today, Part 5: Seating” in National Bus Trader, July, 2006).
  • At least one motorcoach manufacturer (Prevost) recently made a concerted effort to improve its stepwell. Otherwise, the simple exercise of installing a pair of continuous, linear handrails on both sides of the stepwell would provide one railing each for the driver and passenger being assisted, permitting the driver to grasp the passenger with his/her other hand.
  • While a narrow stepwell may preclude side-by-side passenger assistance, it hardly precludes a driver from following a needy passenger up or down the stepwell, from behind, in tandem – although doing this might delay boarding or alighting by a few seconds.
  • Kneeling features are helpful when drivers bother to engage them. But they only approximate the riser heights between the other steps, and obviously do not affect the quality of footing on the ground surface. And, of course, they only help passengers board to or alight from the bottom step.
  • Wheelchair lifts contain genuine promise for improved boarding and alighting of unstable ambulatory and semi-ambulatory passengers – although drivers obviously cannot do this and assist passengers at the front stepwell at the same time. The extra few minutes this dilemma might involve could cut into the driver’s layover time.
  • From the bottom of the stepwell, “spotting” might work if only large, strong and athletic drivers were employed, and outfitted with equipment appropriate for baseball catchers or hockey goalies. However, when not provided with such equipment, spotting falling passengers may involve considerable risk – which helps to explain why drivers are so rarely present when their passengers fall down the stepwell.

Reallocating Costs and Responsibilities

In suggesting that we might consider changing current practices, I am not oblivious or insensitive to the additional time and cost involved. Nor am I unsympathetic to the pool of already-underpaid and overworked drivers who would now be asked to undertake still more training and responsibility, not to mention greater risks. However, if one factored in the time and cost wasted in lawsuits when such assistance is not provided, one would likely find that changes in these procedures would involve cost savings – savings that could be passed along to drivers in the form of higher wages, better training, better equipment and more peace of mind. Regardless, the relationship between the cost of prevention and the cost of cure is hardly a new phenomenon; but it almost always represents some form of failure.

Squandering Substantial Benefits with Trivial Risks

This year, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of the USDOT, engine manufacturers, and a handful of transit agencies willing to accept Federal funds to demonstrate the technology, motorcoach engines will be five times cleaner (in key respects) than those manufactured last year. Three years from now, they will be significantly cleaner still. And while saving a few bucks on the old stuff may have accounted for a significant share of the dramatic increase (by roughly a third) in motorcoach sales this year, the increase nevertheless occurred. Traffic and gridlock continue to grow, as does the public’s impatience with it and the revitalized interest among bipartisan Congressional leaders to stem its tide (as evidenced by the growing number of “new starts” for light rail systems and the expansion of existing systems). One recent survey found that 74 percent of motorists supported increased spending for transit improvements – a statistic unthinkable a mere two decades ago. With fuel costs still soaring (election-related political shenanigans temporarily lowering them notwithstanding), and new needs for buses and coaches (e.g., evacuation and temporary housing) burgeoning with each new assault on the planet’s environment, buses have approached the status of food, shelter, clothing and medical supplies in the lexicon of 21st Century survival. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently awarded a motorcoach conglomerate $32.5M for simply mimicking and preparing for the implementation of ideas outlined in an NBT Article (“Plans, Preparation and The S-Word,” November, 2005) published over a year ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

While no one would reasonably argue that the future of the motorcoach industry is as bright as it once was, it is suddenly far brighter than it has been since deregulation began more than two decades ago. While a few hundred slip-and-fall-related lawsuits are unlikely to squander these gains entirely, they will likely stem their potential – if only because the dangers they represent deter a substantial number of potential riders. Because so many bus and coach passengers are injured when the vehicle is not even moving, the claim that bus or motorcoach travel is safer than automobile travel is not credible without an asterisk.

Remedies and Responsibility

Unless some responsibility is asserted to reverse it, the steady trickle of boarding and alighting accidents that compromise our industry’s tremendous gains will only worsen as our ridership ages and becomes even more frail. We could, of course, change our motto: “Send us your young, your athletic, your gymnasts and acrobats, yearning to take risks.” Were this message heeded, our ridership would sink like a stone. While it is true that 30 percent of all motorcoach riders are schoolchildren on activity or field trips, these riders are not our immediate future. Our future is aging baby boomers staying alive for longer and longer periods of time, and whose lives we can make richer and more meaningful by transporting them safely from their dreary parlors and nursing homes to the venues of their remaining hopes and dreams.

Admittedly, these passengers may have limited funds. And the constrained fares and drivers’ salaries into which their disposable incomes translate, and the marginally-regulated, cutthroat competition under which we operate, may limit the bonanza this ridership group might otherwise provide. Regardless, these passengers are our living. But any and every one of them is only a single, toll-free phone call away from the hungriest, most zealous personal injury attorneys this planet has ever known. If we are to make a living transporting these passengers, we had better take better care of them.

It is unrealistic to think that we can prevent every accident – even though the concept is still a worthy goal. Otherwise, if we are going to survive with this class of passengers, we must take aggressive steps to eliminate the subsets of incidents that at least lie within our grasp. Keeping our passengers from falling up or down the steps when the vehicle is not even moving is not an unachievable goal. It is a goal we can achieve if we take specific steps to change certain practices. Accomplishing this does not involve computers, brokers, definitions of charter service, alternate fuel technologies, cleaner (and hotter) engines and bus fires, transportation security, modifying regulations to reflect the 360-degree rotation of the earth on its axis, or other dilemmas that seem to baffle or stagger our industry. Instead, achieving it would simply involve coordinating a handful of changes at the equipment and operating levels.

It is one thing to not solve the difficult problems. But what does it suggest about our industry that we cannot seem to solve the simple ones?

Publications: National Bus Trader.