The Long, Long Night: Risks of Night Driving and the Regulatory Changes We Need

Not being facetious, I am getting tired of writing about fatigue: This is my eighth National Bus Trader article about it. While its cause has not yet been ascribed to fatigue (at least not officially), the recent Arkansas motorcoach crash prompts me to recount yet another episode.

The Long, Long Night

On New Year’s Day Even, 2001, a motorcoach driver retired at 4:30 PM to prepare for his nocturnal marathon later that evening. After a restless nap during which he barely slept, he arose at 10:30 PM,  gulped down a bowl of soup, and drove 45 minutes to his waiting bus. After a quick pre-trip, he began his all-night deadhead to the start of the route.  Roughly eight hours and two coffee-and-cookie rest stops later, he began picking up hearing-impaired teenagers returning from Christmas vacation to their boarding school – another eight hours away.   

At roughly 8:05 AM, with a few passengers on board, the driver dozed off on a wide freeway curve entering a bridge. His body-on-chassis conversion veered to the right, crashed through a guard rail and soared 122 feet – pitching, rolling and yawing all the way — until reaching an embankment below. After rolling over several times on its way down the hill, the bus came to rest alongside an underpass. Two passengers pinned beneath the same street-side window were killed – one after screaming for 45 minutes while rescue teams tried to extricate her. A third passenger was transformed into a quadriplegic. Remarkably, the driver received only minor injuries, as did a handful of other passengers.  

Financing the Chase

With no reasonable chance of defending the operating company, its insurance carrier quickly tendered the $5M “policy limits” – instantly enriching the plaintiffs’ attorneys with  $1.7 million of spending money. They quickly filed suit against the chassis maker, the body maker (my client), the State Department of Education, and its Department of Transportation – the latter for designing and constructing a “defective guardrail.”

From a crashworthiness perspective, while the driver’s compartment was compressed almost beyond recognition, there was relatively little damage to the passenger compartment. Further, most of the roof behind the driver’s compartment remained so intact that its deformation was barely perceptible. Only a handful of passenger windows popped out (presumably as the body torqued around the chassis). Similarly, few seats (presumably those which passengers had occupied) were deformed, while most remained in place in perfect condition. In simple terms, the bus’ design and construction appeared to have accomplished what they were supposed to.  

Gray and Grayer

The wreckage suggested that the front cap of the bus struck the ground first. It certainly struck the guardrail first. In Transport Canada’s benchmark 1984 crash-testing of three school buses, all three of their bodies separated from their chassis upon striking a concrete barrier at 30 mph. NHTSA conjectured that this separation may actually have helped absorb the crash forces. Largely because front-impact crash tests are not required for buses in the United States, this fascinating theory has never been validated (notwithstanding some other continents’ research of which I may be unaware). Regardless, unlike the Transport Canada findings and several catastrophic body-and-chassis collisions (the 1993 Palm Springs and 1996 Fox River Grove school bus accidents come to mind), the body and chassis of the vehicle-in-question did not separate.

In contrast to this accident, the monocoque motorcoach involved in the recent Arkansas crash experienced its roof separating. This scenario is reminiscent of a recent Florida school bus crash: When the NTSB examined that wreckage, it found that the sidewall frame-members had completely rusted away; the roof had been supported literally by the sheet metal. This revelation led to the recall, and repair or retirement, of more than 500 buses, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. Not terribly dissimilar was a catastrophic motorcoach accident, in the lawsuit for which I served as the plaintiffs’ expert (see Bus & Motorcoach News, October 15, 2004): Photographs of the wreckage looked as if that old coach had practically no structure.

Among the claims made by the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the 2001 accident were (a) the vehicle should have been a school bus, and (b) it should have had seat belts. Of course, had it been a school bus, it would not have had seatbelts. Further, it contained fully-padded, contoured, forward-facing, high-back, bucket seats with armrests. One could make a strong argument that, in certain collision orientations, such seats are safer than FMVSS-certified school bus seats: While compartmentalized, school bus seats provide no protection from lateral or oblique impacts. From the reconstruction evidence I examined, the front plane of the bus appeared to have struck either or both the guard rail and the embankment on an oblique angle. Yet most passengers remained in their seats following the multiple impacts and tumbling.

A similarly gray issue involved whether or not the bus had been deployed in home-to-school transportation (ergo the inclusion of the department of education in the lawsuit): The students on board resided primarily in dormitories “on campus.” They were simply transported to their regular homes on weekends and holidays. Had plaintiffs’ counsel convinced a jury that this transportation was indeed “home-to-school,” the state’s entire 1400-bus school pupil activity bus (SPAB) program (which contained specific requirements for activity buses) might have gone down the tubes, devastating its motorcoach industry in the process.

The Same Old Stories

In rollover accidents, the issues of seat belts and window retention go together like a horse and carriage. Advocates on either issue use fellow-issues to justify their positions. Unfortunately, in their obsession to blame so much on the cue, governments, courts and media may fail to recognize that the player was distracted during the shot. Such oversights not only threatens bus and coach operators, but manufacturers, suppliers, schools, tourism agencies, brokers, hotels, restaurants, museums, amusement parks, insurance carriers, government agencies — and even guardrail manufacturers.  

Issues and Non-Answers

All this takes us back, once again, to fatigue. It may be some time before it can be established that fatigue factored into the recent Arkansas accident. Particularly as the driver was killed, we may never know. But it matters not a hoot whether our umbrella groups are correct in their claim that fatigue is not a problem in the motorcoach industry, compared to the beliefs of many that a common state of drivers is not fatigue, but exhaustion. However, one might notice that the hours-of-service regulations applicable to the motorcoach industry were crafted in the era of 78 rpm phonograph records, barely after women had won the right to vote, and long before the appearance of jet engines, televisions or freeways.  We might want to think about updating our future.

Another haunting ramification of many catastrophic bus and coach accidents is the age of the vehicles involved. Because older vehicles are operated largely by marginally-profitable small companies and owner-operators, vehicle-related causation blurs with driver- and management-related causation. But is has always been clear that crashworthiness deteriorates with vehicle age and mileage. It is just not clear where the line should be drawn for the public transportation industry – if we can even afford to draw it as a financial or political reality.

Whine and Laughter

Lest the reader be tempted to whine on about tort reform, it is important to note that attorneys, insurance carriers, administers and wonks have effectively become our healthcare system. Other developed countries tend to use doctors and nurses. To use the cart behind the horse, much less enjoy the ride, one must first remove the flies.

Newer vehicles, changes in the HOS and increased enforcement will not likely end catastrophic bus and coach accidents altogether. But they had better make a dent. AMTRAK and the airline industry survived episode after episode of Sixty Minutes, 20-20, CNN and Nightline. They even survived Ralph Nader. But even with the obscene subsidies they enjoy, these industries did not fare as well on late night talk shows. If the recent Arkansas accident – or another like it – pops up on the radar of one of Jay Leno’s or David Letterman’s writers, you can stick a fork in us as an industry. Our slogan will not be, “Leave the Driving to Us.”  It will be, “We Drive While We Sleep.”

The greatest threat to the motorcoach industry is not terrorism. It is comedians. If we continue giving them material, we can hardly blame them for using it.


Publications: National Bus Trader.