Stairways, Escalators and Expectations: When the Stepwell Becomes an Escalator

Just this last month, I participated in two lawsuits where kneeling features were involved in an unusual way, both times causing serious injuries. While almost every reader will find the errors below both rare and surprising, the fact that they obviously occur leaves yet another aspect of driver performance to monitor. And it echoes my advice in many previous NBT articles about the importance of operator contact with one’s defense attorney. As I have not yet heard about such an incident occurring on a motorcoach, it is my hope these anecdotes will help you avoid them, encourage you to make sure your drivers are taught a few small things that may seem obvious, and provide some insight into what drivers may occasionally do when their schedules are too tight or they do not understand fundamental principles of science or physics.

In speaking of schedule tightness, the kneeling feature miscues explored below are not likely to occur in charter or tour service, where schedules are not generally very tight, where there are few stops, and where it is the industry standard (not always followed) for the drivers to stand at the bottom of the stepwell during boarding and alighting. In contrast, the dynamics of intercity/scheduled service and computer/express service provide opportunities for such idiosyncrasies – in scheduled service because many buses must make connections (often with several other buses), and in commuter/express service because the schedules are commonly too tight because they are created by incompetent and/or corrupt “lead agencies” whose contracts insist that you, as contract service providers, “hold them harmless.”

Elevators and Escalators

When a bus or coach passenger takes a seat, he or she does not expect the seat to begin moving around. Likewise, while boarding or alighting, the passenger does not expect the handrails or steps to begin moving. Yet listen to these scenarios – both of which were perpetrated by transit drivers in the same large urban system:

  • A driver noted two elderly women as they boarded, and watched them stroll to seats near the middle of the bus. At their destination, the driver pulled his bus parallel to the curb, where engagement of the kneeling feature was not really needed. Four passengers entered the stepwell before the two elderly ladies. When the latter began stepping down, the driver evidently thought something like, “Oh, my, these are elderly passengers; I should engage the kneeler.” So he did – with the two ladies already in the stepwell. Of course, from this unexpected movement, both were startled, lost their balance, and tumbled down the stepwell into the street, where they were both severely injured.
  • Another transit driver began pulling away, and was stopped by a pedestrian who signaled to him that a would-be-stranded passenger was running to catch the bus. Several feet away from the curb, the driver stopped again, opened the door, lowered the kneeler, and waited for the otherwise strandee to hop on board. Presumably because the driver was in a hurry – already operating in an urban area known for its tight schedules – once the passenger’s first foot landed on the bottom step, the driver began raising the kneeling feature. Not expecting the steps to be moving, this motion startled the passenger, and as he fell forward he reached for a handrail – in the process badly tearing his rotator cuff, and leaving him with a marginally-functioning arm after undergoing surgery and painful therapy.

I would be willing to bet that most of this installment’s NBT readers have never seen anyone fall on an escalator. Why is this? The answer is simple: The escalator user sees the steps moving, expects them to continue moving (and at the same speed), and integrates his or her gait onto them as he or she enters it. In contrast, when one begins to ascend or descend a stationary set of steps, he or she expects them to remain stationary, and relies upon this expectation throughout his or her journey up or down them. What do you think would naturally happen if, on a stationary set of steps, they suddenly began to move? Is it any wonder why the three passengers cited above lost their balance? And is it not one’s initial response to being thrown off balance to try to grab something to break the fall?

Lawsuits, Effort and Outcomes

I was engaged as an expert witness for the plaintiff in both of these incidents. In the first one, where the two passengers were practically mauled, I was contacted on the Friday evening before the trial was to begin the following Monday. I was given hardly any material to review, and spent barely two hours preparing for the trial. Yet I never had a chance to testify because the case was settled almost as soon as the trial began. While I obviously do not know the details of the damage award, I would be willing to bet that the attorney did practically no work on the case, and settled out for 10 cents on the dollar – effectively selling his clients out for quick and easy money. In this venue, as in many large urban venues, a lot of lawyers earn their livings on volume.

In the second lawsuit, I was engaged more than two years ago by a pair of hard-working, thorough and dedicated attorneys (females – generally my preference because they are usually less taken by themselves, and far more often eager to listen) who, among other things, allowed me to meet with and mock-cross-examine the client. During this exercise, he became flustered, issued a few profanities at me, and stormed out of the room. Along with the many flaws in his deposition, my attorneys recognized his shortcomings, were able to “rehabilitate him,” and he turned into a model witness whom the jury loved. They also appeared to believe my points about one’s expectations about stationary objects, and the industry standard that kneeling features should not be engaged when passengers are actually in the stepwell. We won the case on liability, and our client was awarded $2.5M.

I could write a book about the lessons these two lawsuits provide about both attorneys and operators. You will find a lot of them in former NBT articles. Key among them are:

  1. Neither the attorney’s or his or her expert’s brilliance wins the day. Nor do necessarily the facts. What wins the day is effort.
  2. Every defendant’s attorney does not bother to analyze the effort devoted to a case by the plaintiff’s counsel. Make sure your attorney does – another reason you should insist on maintaining contact with him or her. If you can spot a lazy and corrupt plaintiff’s attorney, you should be able to settle for peanuts – usually if you do so quickly, before he or she has spent any serious money preparing for the case. In the first example cited above, the attorney did so little work, it was easy to settle for peanuts even once the trial began.
  3. Most drivers are only high school graduates, and many did not go that far. So you can bet that, during Seventh Grade science class, when the teacher explained inertial and centrifugal forces, those students’ minds were elsewhere. The point is, you really need to instruct your drivers about these types of things. While most incidents where these forces catch up with one occur immediately after boarding or just before alighting, engaging the kneeling feature with passengers in the stepwell exposes them to the same changes in these forces. Devote a few minutes of training time to instill this into your drivers. Do not take their knowledge or understanding about it for granted.

Configuration and Tradition

One aspect of these cases that neither sets of attorneys wanted to bother with – lawyers are always afraid of overwhelming the jury – was the configuration of the kneeling feature itself. Thus my question: Why are most buses and coaches configured so that the doors must open before the kneeling feature is engaged, and so that the kneeling feature can rise with the doors still open? All or most manufactures can configure it either way – and as a product defects matter, my suggestion is that manufacturers refuse to configure them this way. Just as easily, the stepwell and doors can be configured so that the vehicle must kneel before the doors are opened, and cannot be raised up until the doors are closed. If either of the buses cited above had been configured in this manner, the two incidents could not and would not have occurred.

In suggesting this alternative to the more traditional configuration, I am not speaking of a major engineering change, or a costly modification of any sort. All that is needed is that the traditional sequencing of the door’s opening and closing and the engagement of the kneeling feature – two independent processes both controlled by the same pneumatic system – be reversed. I tend to blame the purchaser more for this than the manufacturer, because market forces are such that one who refuses to configure a bus or coach according to the customer’s specifications cannot qualify under most bid situations. Of course, at the risk of offending an incompetent purchasing official, it would not hurt for the manufacturer to suggest the configuration I am endorsing, even if the manufacturer offers to provide the arrangement the customer’s RFP requested.

Knowing and Seeing

Almost anyone reading this article will agree with its points, and hopefully remember them the next time his or her purchasing department issues a set of specifications. Yet one wonders why it seems to take so long to effect almost trivial changes to the products in our industry. After years of crusading for them, I was finally delighted when, recently, a seat manufacturer developed a compartmentalized motorcoach seat. After complaining about dysfunctional handrails for nearly a decade, I was pleased when, at a recent trade show, I actually saw a handrail wrapped around the front rotating pole of a split-panel pantographic door. And over the years, the uniformity of riser heights and tread depths has increased enormously. Perhaps because these items are perceived to involve only small things or minor issues, they are overlooked by bus and coach designers focused on the “Big Picture.” But as article after article have documented, it is not always the Big Picture that causes an injury accident – although the underlying causes of so many are certainly related to a small handful of themes like driver fatigue, low pay (and the negligent retention that results) and unrealistically-tight schedules.

It is hard to be a prolific writer without becoming part philosopher. One of the things I have come to believe is that most accidents are not the result of what one does not know. They are the result of what one does not see. I do not mean seeing in the strict, narrow literal sense. When I mention seeing, I am speaking about a difference between fixating on the bumper directly in front of you compared to the full set of principles encompassed by defensive driving. Even while perhaps half of all injury-accidents appear to stem from symptoms rather than their underlying problems (e.g., tight schedules, fatigued drivers, etc.), much can be learned by carefully examining the details of the symptoms – another reason I have advocated that operating agencies and companies conduct their own incident investigations apart from, and beyond, what police officers and claims adjusters do. On occasion, enlisting outside technical assistance may be worth its weight in platinum.

Finally, if there are two things that the two incidents cited above illustrate, they are (a) how simple the causes of so many incidents seem to be, and (b) how simple they are to avoid. In the examples here, tiny changes in vehicle specification, purchasing, training and monitoring would virtually have eliminated any chance of this type of incident occurring. So while one may not possess control over some of the underlying dynamics – lead agencies creating unmeetable schedules, and driver assignment practices incompatible with a driver’s natural sleep-wakefulness cycle – there is still much one can do to protect ones’ drivers, passengers and business.

Publications: National Bus Trader.