The Mysterious Force

My experience analyzing scores of accidents has convinced me that the preparation for, and presentation of, a case generally counts more than the facts. Yet even in analysis, the lack of common sense can be astonishing.

Seeing the Tree Through the Bark

When the traffic signal turned green, a transit bus accelerated into a left turn. Before the bus even left the intersection, three passengers (including an elderly standee) were pitched through the closed rear door into the street. Representatives from the bus manufacturer (which I assisted), the city and its contract operator all examined the bus and accident scene. Finding that the rear door opened far too easily, they concluded that this defect caused the accident.

Deposition testimony revealed that, in the past, drivers had been stopping by shifting into neutral and opening the rear door – a sequence which triggered the interlock (designed to prevent the bus from moving while its doors are open) and shuddered the bus to a stop. Instead of firing the drivers, the contractor had its mechanics rewire the interlock to bypass the neutral and brake switches! Now, drivers could not “trick” the bus into stopping by opening the doors. Of course, one could practically open them by shouting, “Hey, door!” Leaning on the rear door during his examination, one of the investigators nearly fell out of the bus.

While bastardizing the interlock was illegal, it was also irrelevant to the accident: None of the investigators, and none of the numerous “experts” engaged in the law suit which followed, noted that one of the three passengers ejected had been seated on the street side of the bus, on the opposite side of the aisle. One witness even testified that she heard a thud (presumably caused when the first ejectee blasted open the door), and turned around to see a passenger fly across the aisle and out of the bus with his feet in the air. This wasn’t an accident; it was a Roadrunner cartoon.

The Mysterious Force Theory

The door had absolutely nothing to do with the accident: Open or shut, what sucked the passengers out of the bus? Martians? New technology by Hoover or Electrolux? Electro-magnetic forces? Levitation? Flubber? Of course not. I reasoned that the bus had accelerated and turned too quickly, and that its passengers had overloaded the suspension system. It never occurred to any of the investigators, attorneys or other experts that many vehicles – like boats, wagons, helicopters, sleds, amusement park rides, horses, donkeys and bicycles – do not even have doors. Yet the passengers don’t fly off or out when these vehicles accelerate or turn.

Sure enough, evidence confirmed my suspicions:

  • The bus was designed to carry 29 passengers, while there were 34 on board
  • The bus’ GVWR could not support even 29 passengers – much less the additional passengers
  • The “running time” (the actual time it took for the bus to make one round trip on the route) was 15 minutes longer than the “cycle time” (the time allotted for this trip on the schedule)

When I examined the route – including riding several buses and observing a dozen more – I uncovered an atrocity of incompetence. Buses were overloaded constantly, and operated so relentlessly behind schedule that drivers were “chasing their tails” during their entire 8-hour shifts. Lunches consisted of yogurt guzzled through straws at red lights. Bathroom breaks were created only when drivers deviated from their route alignments – sometimes missing runs altogether. I watched one bus cruise through a red light without even slowing. The schedule had dissolved so completely that the operator was able to “hide” missing runs and missing buses almost effortlessly, regularly defrauding the city whose staff had not a clue.

Of course, fewer buses translated into larger loads, larger loads into longer running times and, thus, even more overcrowding. Because the routes contained no “recovery time,” vehicles tended to bunch up, exacerbating the overcrowding further by distributing the loads yet more unevenly. On one run, I counted 54 passengers – although I am sure I missed a few because I was forced to ride in the front stepwell. One driver told me that the company actually received a memorandum issued by the city demanding that drivers load the buses to 42 passengers! The City had also written the vehicle specifications, ordered the buses, and leased them to its contractor for $1/year. Unfortunately, the only chassis available to accommodate these requests contained leaf spring suspension systems – typical of school buses, whose passengers are forbidden to stand.

Altogether, I found more than 40 errors or omissions by the city and its operator, including seven that were statutory violations. But the attorney I assisted was so overwhelmed by the case’ complexity that he recommended his client (the bus manufacturer) settle for $1.1 million – over my objections and pleading. The plaintiff’s attorney turned around and used this settlement to finance its case against the operator – whose contract held the city (or lead agency) harmless – even for negligence solely its fault. Of course, few attorneys even know what a lead agency is, much less understand how negligent policy-making, planning and system design can triggers or facilitates negligence at the operating level.

Lessons for Motorcoach Operations

The outrageous and reckless conduct I identified in this accident is presumably kept in tow by statutes prohibiting overloading – although the rationale is related primarily to the damage overloaded axles cause to streets. (Florida freeways permit 22,500 lbs. per axle, while the other states permit only 20,500.) Indeed, motorcoaches are often checked on truck-weight scales. But since motorcoaches rarely carry standees, and coaches 40-feet or more in length contain tag axles, motorcoaches are rarely found to be in violation. The same is not true for transit buses, for which enforcement is either lax or, in many states, non-existent.

Then, of course, there are the restrooms. Motorcoach designers who include restrooms clearly foresee passengers walking around on the coach while it is moving. (More and better restrooms are usually available at most rest stops.) The problem is, it may not be safe for passengers to leave their seats during acceleration, deceleration or turning – unless these changes in speed and direction are mild and gradual. Lawsuits stemming from passengers thrown about on the coach may revolve around what is mild and gradual – difficult concepts to argue by either party, much less measure. Erring on the side of caution, drivers would do well to be conscious of these movements, and warn passengers to should remain seated when severe ones are anticipated. This notion is hardly novel: Pilots provide such warnings routinely. Those caught in bathrooms are beeped and flashed – although one could argue they are safer sitting “on the pot” than walking back to their seats from it.

While some transportation-related accidents involve no negligence (apart from some possibly committed by the victims), it is also true that many accidents reek of it. Adding error to error, and omission to omission, someone will eventually be killed or maimed. Regardless, if an accident walks, talks and smells like negligence, it probably involves lots. Looking hard, you can usually find it. And, finding it, you can usually prevent accidents that might otherwise occur. Of course, if you do not, you can always blame the Martians.

Publications: National Bus Trader.