The Price of Digital Madness

The explosion of digital technology has triggered increases in vehicle costs, purged small and medium-sized companies from the transportation landscape, and contributed to a nationwide shortage of qualified drivers. But it has taken its greatest toll on management, where supervisors with a genuine understanding of transportation are gradually being replaced by armies of “templeteers.”

While transportation systems absorb the costs of this technology, their passengers clearly pay the price:

  • A 28-year old mentally-retarded paratransit passenger was raped, on several occasions, by her driver – on the floor of the minivan. Finding day-to-day variations in his performance completely unmonitored, the driver simply ignored his computer-generated schedules and restructured his route to isolate the victim.
  • A taxi driver drove his mentally-retarded passenger to his own apartment and, after raping her, transported her to her destination – on time. While the driver was required to enter his occasional paratransit trips into a “mobile data terminal,” the lead agency did not require drivers to record the general service taxi trips surrounding them.
  • Another paratransit driver regularly molested a mentally-retarded woman in “dedicated vehicle” service. His crimes were undetected even though he logged all his trips into a mobile data terminal.
  • A special education driver did not notice while a bully molested the only other (male) passenger on board. Despite an ocean of technological administrivia, the school never informed its contractor of the bully’s history of similar incidents.
  • A paratransit driver induced an 11-year old pedestrian into his van where, after failing to molest him, he beat the boy to a pulp, and dumped him into the gutter. (He lived.)

With all their digital paraphernalia, none of the lead or operating agencies even knew about these crimes until notified by the police or the victims’ attorneys. Perhaps mesmerized by the accuracy of their computerized schedules, it never occurred to anyone in management that the drivers might simply not follow them.

Technology and Tradition

Because the Americans with Disabilities Act was recently expanded to include motorcoach service, we cannot afford to view the failures of paratransit service as mere curiosities. In only our third year under the ADA, we have already begun to familiarize ourselves with new vehicle and equipment requirements, challenging responsibilities for passenger safety and security, and increased liability exposure when we fail to provide them. In harnessing technology to cope with these challenges, we have the luxury of learning from the experiences of fellow services. But we have another, far more important advantage: A tradition of personal service.

With its orientation toward “transit-dependent” riders, the evaporation of Federal funds for operating assistance, and the “unfunded mandate” to provide complimentary paratransit service, it is not surprising that the heavily-subsidized transit industry has fallen prey to the allure and false promises of digital technology. In contrast, the unsubsidized motorcoach industry has a structure and tradition far less susceptible and corruptible. While many intercity passengers may be public transportation-dependent, the “choice riders” of charter service have grown accustomed to roomy, smooth, safe, comfortable and versatile vehicles with lush interiors, and a cadre of skilled, experienced and dedicated career drivers. Digital technology clearly has a place in such an industry. It has enhanced motorcoach safety, security, comfort, reliability, air quality, versatility, durability, maintainability and performance through an array of devices from ABS brakes and electronic engine controls to video surveillance cameras and collision warning systems. But the substitution of technology for sound management and personal service poses a serious risk to an industry whose customers have a choice.

Sticks and Carrots

Failing to heed these warnings, pray that no obsessed technocrat like me helps some attorney dissect your overly-digitized system after one of your passengers was sodomized or mutilated. I personally reviewed 130 drivers’ logs a day for most of the nine years I owned and directed the operations of a 70-vehicle paratransit system. We caught drivers buying drugs, selling drugs, taking drugs, drinking, napping, drag racing, making unauthorized stops, performing personal errands, buying guns, selling guns, cleaning guns, stealing parts, and committing felonies and misdemeanors I didn’t even know existed. But we caught them. And not one of our passengers was ever assaulted or raped. By reviewing logs, I could usually tell when a driver provided even a single trip out of order, had his first sip of coffee, or emptied his bladder. If you are not monitoring your service, someone like me may some day be enlisted to demonstrate it. If you are foolish or naive enough to think that technology alone will protect your passengers, both you and they may someday pay for it – and pay dearly.

If the price of digital madness does not convey sufficient urgency, the scheduled dismantling of AMTRAK in 2003 should – a demise which could rejuvenate the motorcoach industry as it fills the void. AMTRAK’s entire arsenal of mainframes, networks and software hasn’t enlightened this clueless leviathan as to approaches or strategies – like demand-sensitive pricing – which might render its services more usable and popular, or its losses more reasonable or justifiable. With its history of creativity and profitability, the chameleon motorcoach industry has demonstrated extraordinary flexibility, buoyancy and fiscal responsibility. If properly articulated, these lessons will not be lost on regulators and elected officials. Is our industry clever and organized enough to present it’s case and orchestrate its implementation? I am not sure. But if we are, it will take a serious commitment to personal service excellence to displace an industry whose personnel, from conductors to porters, are legendary for it.

Legacies and Epitaphs

The motorcoach industry is not immune to the forces of its operating environment. But if we continue to structure service around a core of dedicated professionals with a legitimate knowledge of operations – rather than a chorus line of “customer control” clerks with computer skills – we will continue to provide a service that our customers value and support. If we do not, motorcoach service may soon go the way of chimney sweeps, shepherds and vaudeville.

Mark Twain wrote that, “Only a fool is afraid to put all his eggs in one basket. A wise man puts his eggs in one basket and watches the basket.” In the provision of a safety- and security-sensitive personal service, it is not enough to simply beep and flash. I hope I do not someday say, “Oh yeah. I remember motorcoach service.”

Publications: National Bus Trader.