Structure and Communication

When I was four years old, my parents got me a ticket to fill the audience (the “Peanut Gallery”) of my favorite TV show, the Howdy Doody show – emceed by a behind-the-scenes, cigar-smoking alcoholic named Buffalo Bob Smith, with help from the freckled and far-more-famous puppet he did not even operate.

Inside the busy, chaotic, poorly-signed and intimidating studio, the announcement for the Peanut Gallery to assemble was made and, obviously unable to read, I found myself alone in a labyrinth of hallways with no remote clue where to go. Freaked out, I ran back crying to my Dad, and abandoned my appearance on the show.

This tale might simply be a stupid story were it not for its resemblance to a lot of public transportation incidents. Witness:

  • At a rest stop, a motorcoach driver announced to the passengers that they would have 30 minutes to grab a bite to eat while he refuels and cleans the coach. Before doing this, he stepped into the rest station, took a bathroom break, and grabbed a cup of coffee. He then headed out to the coach to drive it around the corner to the maintenance yard. One passenger who spoke only Polish noticed him boarding and pulling away. Panicking, with her young child in tow, she bolted out the door, pounded on the coach as she ran alongside it, and actually caught up to the front door. Unfortunately, the driver either heard nothing or resented her interference. As he turned right toward the yards, the coach’s body swung back, and its front, curb-side corner knocked her down, and its right-front tire crushed her skull.
  • Another motorcoach driver on an overnight layover announced that his coach would be ready for boarding in the early afternoon. Instead of driving to the casino a few minutes before the announced boarding time, doing his business inside, and returning to the coach to assist and spot the boarding passengers, he pulled up and abandoned the coach, kneeled with the door wide open, at the very moment he announced that their boarding could begin. While the driver was inside completing his administrative duties, an elderly passenger ascended the stepwell, removed her badge at the top, and tumbled back down to her death shortly thereafter.

Neither of these passengers survived their respective incidents, leaving behind a heartbroken extended family and a formidable lawsuit. Yet so little was needed to prevent either of these tragedies, since both of them sprang largely from bad decisions and worse communications about them.

Mystery and Structure

Most passengers on both these vehicles had no trouble with the respective situations. Most spoke English, and many had ridden motorcoaches many times before. But to at least one passenger, and perhaps a handful of others, the boarding procedures were not clear. It is one thing to tell passengers about procedures. It is another to make sure they understand them. Even Microsoft repeatedly pesters you with the admonition “Are you sure?” If you are not, you will avoid losing some valuable data. Far more is at stake with motorcoach passengers. If they are not certain about your plans and procedures, any number of mishaps is possible – and many are “reasonably foreseeable,” a death knoll in the inevitable lawsuit.

In the first incident noted above, the driver had a chance to verify every passenger’s understanding of the rest stop and maintenance routine as he stood at the bottom of the stepwell assisting them to the ground level. Learning of those to whom his instructions were unclear would have been obvious, and the remedy could probably have been conveyed in sign language – although the passenger’s daughter spoke fluent English and could easily have explained the procedures to her mother. In the second incident, the driver could simply have pulled up to the boarding area 10 or 15 minutes ahead of his announced boarding time, locked the coach as he entered the building to complete his chores, and returned at the announced boarding time to unlock the coach and assist and spot passengers the boarding passengers.

Speaking for Itself

Our legal system often employs the Latin expression “res ipsa loquitur,” meaning that “the thing speaks for itself.” In both these incidents, it is obvious that neither passenger had a clue what was transpiring – even though it was so obvious to most other passengers. In both cases, with a hair more knowledge, the victim could simply have waited for the driver to return, and with his help, safely boarded the coach.

The school bus industry has, for decades, acknowledged the fact that more serious injuries and fatalities occur outside the bus than within it. As a consequence, that industries’ procedures are steeped in passenger education, passenger management, evacuation drills, assigned seating, and increasingly, digital assistance from a range of devices that do everything from count the children crossing in front of the bus to verifying the completion of pre-trip inspections. In at least two states (California and Rhode Island), the driver (California) or attendant (Rhode Island) physically escorts crossing students across the roadway. While such procedures may be overkill for adults enjoying motorcoach service – keeping in mind, of course, that 30 percent of all motorcoach trips are provided to schoolchildren – a vivid distinction between school bus and motorcoach services is the degree of structure to various areas of operations, and the understanding of rules and procedures communicated to the passengers.

Baby Sitters and Guardian Angels

Motorcoach folklore is rich with principles that safeguard passengers and help manage them. One I learned from Larry Plachno is to always refer to women as “girls,” and to female children as “ladies.” But such magic takes one only so far.

I am not advocating that every motorcoach passenger be treated like a child. But I am advocating that enough structure be provided to make procedures and expectations crystal clear. When the coach is ready for boarding is not a detail. Its understanding is central to the passengers’ safe loading. When they see the coach pulling away without them, passengers must know it will soon be returning to pick them up, lest they begin chasing it – a scenario routinely taught to school bus drivers, although it does not always work: Last year, all seven of the students killed by the school bus itself were struck only by its rear tires. Similarly, the precise time motorcoach passengers should board must be coordinated with the driver’s presence and readiness to assist them.

I have written often about the challenges of driving a motorcoach compared to that of piloting an aircraft. And I have railed about the grossly disproportionate salaries earned by the latter. But both modes are “common carriers” and their operations must be provided according to the highest standard or duty of care, as a matter of law in every state. With such enormous responsibility, it is imperative to make every directive crystal clear. Modern litigation has proven over and over again that the failure to communicate clearly and completely is not merely costly to the passengers whose understanding is fuzzy, but also costly to those drivers and companies which, between them, failed to clarify it.

Motorcoach passengers, at least in the U.S., have plenty of freedom and flexibility – ranging from the absence of seatbelts to the mildness of security procedures. In countries like Israel, every bus carrying schoolchildren is accompanied by an Uzi-armed soldier, and often a German Shepherd. Our society, laws and institutions do not insist upon such things – at least not yet. But we would do well to tighten up those procedures we can – including many related to boarding and alighting. If our drivers are to be leaders, then there are times they must make the passengers followers – and followers of specific, clearly-defined directives. Getting on and off the coach are two subjects where clarity and structure are sorely needed. If we fail to provide it, we risk experiencing some ugly questioning, some rough battles with our conscience, and perhaps the end of our businesses.

On many subjects, too much structure can be overbearing. With boarding and alighting procedures, however, too little is not merely dangerous. Most of our juries will likely find it inexcusable.

Publications: National Bus Trader.