Passenger Handling and Assistance

Most attorneys become extremely frustrated upon finding that almost nothing about passenger assistance is regulated, at any level. In contrast, industry standards for such assistance is clear, firmly established and easy to prove for certain modes, while it is blurry with others.

One example deals with boarding and alighting assistance. Unless requested, none is provided by transit, taxi and general education school bus transportation drivers, while in contrast, motorcoach drivers are expected to stand at the bottom of the stepwell to provide assistance to passengers up to and down from the often-high bottom step (even though modern motorcoaches contain “kneeling features” that lower the bottom step by four or five inches). The need for and provision of passenger assistance in boarding and alighting is even fuzzier in shuttle services provided with van- or minibus conversions — which often have extremely high floors, no stepwells, poor running boards and other “steps” between the floor and the ground (and usually at irregular intervals), and poor or no handrails. Approaches to providing these amenities (one could argue necessities) are often amateurish. Yet certain vehicle “conversions” contain quite a number of them, and while driver assistance would be helpful, adequate means of boarding and alighting, with body parts, straps and other accoutrements to hold onto in the process, at least exist. Whether the characteristics and configurations of such vehicles are adequate often must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Beyond boarding, passenger assistance is routinely provided to all or some passengers mostly when they are disabled, and to a lesser degree when they are elderly. So levels of passenger assistance are naturally higher on those modes which largely or solely transport such individuals — like complementary paratransit service, non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) and special education school bus service. Passengers often need to be physically escorted to their seats, and their wheelchairs and seatbelts must be affixed by the driver (and its continued attachment monitored throughout the trip). And certain classes of passengers in NEMT service require “basic life support” or in “Code 3” situations, a registered nurse must be on board, since the medical services an EMT or paramedic can provide are limited.

Another common set of passenger handling errors and omissions involves securement. Operators of small vehicles (i.e., less than 10,000 lbs. GVWR, for which the installation of seatbelts at every seating position is a formal NHTSA requirement) are generally diligent about passenger securement — although many drivers fail to monitor it properly (which they can easily do since, at every stop, there is little else to do but peer into the often-oversized, convex interior rear-view mirror). In contrast, wheelchair securement, and the securement of passengers into them, is performed at a dreadful level of consistency throughout certain sectors, particularly transit, largely because schedules are typically too tight, and the securement of a single, garden-variety manual wheelchair can cause a driver to run behind schedule for hours, if not his or her entire shift — dooming that driver to an excruciating shift of stress and fatigue.

Finally, training in passenger handling and care is woefully inadequate through most of the public transportation industry, even on those modes transporting disabled passengers. Millions of trained “aides” help carry, dress and undress, bathe, and help “toilet” disabled passengers, including obese and fragile ones. Yet few transportation drivers possess such skills, much less have knowledge of their passenger’s disabilities at their disposal. This failure is not acceptable simply because it is the industry norm, since a “reasonable and prudent” operator would do better, and unless virtually no one in the industry performs a certain task (like the regular review of drivers’ logs, as my operating company did decades ago), it is hard to make a case that the industry standard is what a reasonable and prudent agency or company would do.

For more on this issue see “Passenger Assistance: Standards, Practices and Disincentives” on Safety Compromises.