The White Line in the Sand – Tight Schedules and Safety Compromises

Question: What do ostriches and fixed route bus operations have in common?

Answer: They both avoid reality by burying their heads in the sand.

The Ostrich’s approach has long been well-known. Given its practice, and the vast number of animal species that have failed to avoid extinction, the Ostriches’ continued existence is a marvel, explainable partly by the paucity of bad-tasting meat their carcasses provide, and partly by their being the second-fastest-running animal on the planet, next to the cheetah. Believe it or not, an Ostrich, which cannot fly, can run 62 mph!

Unlike Ostriches, buses can fly, at least figuratively, and all too often do. Despite a plethora of lawsuits on this theme from which they never escape, fixed route transit and some motorcoach services (mostly scheduled service and commuter/express service) stick their heads in the sand on a thorny issue affecting virtually every passenger – what I call the infamous “White Line Ruse.”

The White Line Ruse

Because courts are not permitted to administer sodium pentothal to witnesses, I have never been certain why so many transit and motorcoach services fail to let boarding passengers reach a point of seating or securement before zooming off toward the next stop. Among the possibilities I have thought of:

  • This would take so much extra time that it is cheaper to simply settle or lose the lawsuit every time this reckless practice breaks a passenger’s hip or leg, among sundry body parts.
  • The rhetoric about safety trumping schedule adherence in public transportation is one of its most ridiculous lies, yet for some reason transportation professionals think that jurors will actually believe it.
  • Transportation providers are under the delusion that if all or most of them follow this approach, it will become the “industry standard,” and become acceptable as a liability matter.
  • Many drivers are actually taught to do this, despite written statements in their policy and training materials to the contrary.
  • Despite endless testimony to the contrary, it is not remotely true that a driver can complete every run wildly late and maintain his or her job, even with the real or illusory union support drivers think will help them do so.
  • Few drivers know or are taught anything about inertial or centrifugal forces.

The answer is likely “all of the above.” What fascinates me in my common role as an expert witness is how agency after agency, and company after company, thinks it can get away with the “White Line Ruse” in court when, as experience demonstrates over and over again, they rarely do.

Science and Subsidies

As noted, it is a rare training manual that bothers to explain what inertial and centrifugal forces are, much less how powerful they can be. (The reader may refer to “The Mysterious Force” in the December, 2001 issue of NBT.) Sadly, most schoolchildren are taught about centrifugal force at roughly the fifth grade level. And I can reiterate with certainty what every more-advanced student learns in the early stages of calculus: That inertial or centrifugal forces are their greatest the nanosecond when an object’s speed changes from nothing to anything, or vice versa. In other words, that “lurch” to feel as your bus slows from 1/10th mph to a stop is the most excessive it will ever be – other than, or course, the nanosecond it begins moving. Exploring mathematics a bit more deeply, force – inertial, centrifugal or otherwise – equals mass times acceleration. Speed is irrelevant. This reality explains those grainy videos of space shuttle take-offs when, during lift-off, the rocket may have reached a speed of perhaps three mph – yet the astronauts’ skin is practically peeled back off their faces. Later on, in orbit, when the rocket is traveling at perhaps 25,000 mph, these same astronauts are seen floating around in the space capsule, drinking Tang. Somehow, transportation officials do not seem to get this. Or perhaps they do but just do not care.

Unfortunately, in the world of public transportation, where service is either highly subsidized, or where profit margins of those services not subsidized are razor thin, it has become unrealistic to add another 10 percent to a vehicle’s running time (and possibly another bus or coach) in order to avoid the handful of tricks most drivers employ to carve out the hope of obtaining in any recovery or layover time. I have mentioned these tricks in other NBT articles. They include:

  • Failing to secure wheelchairs or their passengers into them
  • Stopping on the wrong side of a signalized intersection to either make the light or dash through it, to avoid having to stop twice
  • Failing to kneel the bus when it is not adjacent to the curb
  • Failing to pull over to the curb – mostly because it can occasionally take a significant amount of time to find a safe moment to pull back out into the traffic stream

Other than ignoring wheelchair securement, the best chance at carving out or increasing recovery or layover time is to employ the white line ruse. And the more passengers picked up, the more recovery time this approach helps to create. Riding a bus recently, to time and observe the tightness of its schedule for a lawsuit, the driver commented to me about his passengers’ risks: “When they step over the white line, they are fair game.” When I quoted him to the jury, they bolted upright in their seats so quickly I thought their eyes were going to pop out. Were it not for expert witnesses, such hypocrisy might slither by the average juror. But when the reality of the “White Line Ruse” is explained to jurors in simple terms, they are as hostile toward it as I am, and the transit or motorcoach industry defendant usually pays dearly for it.

Costs and Values

The haunting question is, in a supposedly rational society, are such practices really worth it? Is all the mayhem and misery caused by this ruse and the other tricks noted above worth the few extra minutes faster a bus full of passengers might get to work or elsewhere? Or is this just one of thousands of compromises we, in modern America make, in order to not raise enough taxes to make our transportation systems safe, among countless other things we underfund? Regardless, in insular and unrealistic monetary terms, it seems to cost less to race 90 buses along the roadway than to operate 100 of them safely. So that is what many fixed route operator do.

The problem is, or course, that these cost savings are illusory. Even beyond the legal settlements and damage awards, most public transportation passengers are relatively poor, and when they run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical costs — whether or not they recover them in the inevitable lawsuit — the taxpayers end up covering them. An ounce of prevention is not merely worth a pound of cure. It also costs less. Yet this is a lesson our transportation community, and our nation, has somehow failed to learn. Or perhaps the transportation  community does not care because even the genuine monetary costs of this folly are borne by other sectors: Unemployment benefits, workers compensation, welfare, supplemental security income and even complementary paratransit service and in-home nursing care, much less Medicare, Medicaid and “Obamacare.” So this practice, and others like it, is not simply a breakdown in values. It is a failure to understand arithmetic. And it represents a failure to understand the dynamics of our society as a whole — or to care about them.

With a weekend country home/office three hours away, and parking costs in Lower Manhattan (where my main office is) exorbitant, I ride motorcoaches at least twice a week. Frankly, with at least one heavy, awkward shoulder bag, I am tired of the risks I face each time I board while I work my rocky way down the treadmill-like passenger aisle to my seat as the inertial and centrifugal forces of the bus’ pull-out tug at my feet. Somehow, I feel I deserve better. And I feel that the trade-offs and values that this senseless approach reflects should be more enlightened.

Publications: Articles about Safety Compromises.