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The types of maintenance deficiencies that compromise durability, or which are likely to lead directly to catastrophic accidents, are rarely the same types of deficiencies that contribute to passenger incidents. Instead, the failure to maintain each and every feature in perfect working order — including non-moving parts — are those that either cause or contribute to the vast majority of passenger-related incidents that involve some deficiency in the vehicle.
The range of items occasionally poorly maintained is almost exhausting. It begins with simple obvious errors and omissions: Underinflated tires, worn tire treads, un-lubricated wheel bearings, missing light housings, rust, dirt lodged in wheelchair securement tracks, dirty windshields and mirrors, torn seat cushions and seatbacks, etc.
Most often, these problems combine with operating, management or policy-making errors and omissions to cause an incident. In others — worn or underinflated tires, or a single burned-out bulb among a school bus’ eight flashing lights – is enough to cause a serious incident all by itself. Not surprisingly, these problems are compounded by latent design defects in the vehicles themselves — most typically those involving stepwells, which the public transportation industry can almost never figure out how to design and configure intelligibly. When such problems are discovered, defendants are generally as doomed if their record-keeping is perfect than when it’s barely-existent. Some digital enhancements — like ABS brakes and tire inflation sensors — have reduced many types of risks. But most digital paraphernalia merely distract the driver, and in many instances create more safety-related risks than they alleviate, largely because there is little enforcement for their usage (video camera monitoring and using devices like Zonar to “ensure” the conduct of pre-trip inspections are good examples).
Finally, examining maintenance records is difficult and frustrating: Whether by accident or design, most mechanics have worse handwriting than doctors. And the former’s use of computerized maintenance has improved accountability only if someone is monitoring it closely and regularly, which is rarely the case. For such reasons, most attorneys shy away from examining maintenance as a causative element, even while they request evidence of it in the discovery process. This is a serious problem in examining certain types of incidents, since most expert witnesses familiar with system design and operations know little about vehicles, and vice versa. (I am one of the few exceptions.)