One of the first things attorneys tend to explore in a public transportation case is the “failure to warn” — a theme that, frankly, is a rare omission in public transportation. This is largely because of a complete regulatory vacuum. Particularly in cases where passengers careen down dysfunctional bus stepwells with poorly-configured handrails, defendants have the gall to argue that a sign on one of the risers — viewable only to a passenger while boarding — warns them to watch their step, which they also claim the driver told the passenger to do. I equate this type of warning with “have a nice day.”
Other genuine warnings can be misplaced. For example, many bus doors contain warnings to “stand back.” This has no meaning for an outward-opening door. In contrast, many incidents that could be mitigated by warnings never possess them, either through signage or via driver instructions (although most drivers have access to a PA system with interior speakers). Among these are:
- Always hold onto something if you are riding as a standee
- Stepwell has unusual and discontinuous handrails (I doubt this would relieve the defendant from liability)
- Bottom step is high above the ground [the number of inches should be cited]: Hold onto something until your first foot touches the ground
- If you think you might need help alighting, ask the driver to help you
- [For those vehicles that contain them]: Never remove your seatbelt (however, it’s still the driver’s responsibility to monitor compliance)
- Driver assistance on and off is not provided (for those modes where it is not, and this sign needs to be outside, on or near the entrance doorway)
- Watch irregular steps up and down (for “split-level” type low-floor buses without “drop axles,” where passengers must step up to a “mezzanine” to ride in the rear of the bus)
- Always remain in your seat
- Try not to distract the driver
One area where procedures and the warnings about them are often violated involves school bus transportation, where a vast number of management personnel and drivers do not follow even the basic principles correctly. For example, the engagement of red flashers is designed to inform approaching motorists — not a signal for the student to enter the roadway. Many states have obsolete requirements for the engagement of “amber flashers,” in particular, and where multiple types of flashers exist (because these states do not possess retrofit provisions), motorists are confused about the meaning of these lights, and extra precautions must be taken to warn student-passengers to look before crossing, and not depend on motorist compliance with procedures.
Frankly, hundreds of times this many warnings need to be provided to those management officials and drivers who provide transportation. But that’s what planning, system design, training, monitoring, evaluation, supervision and enforcement are for, and so many warnings would not be needed if hiring and retention were handled more responsibly — although our economy’s inequities make this somewhat challenging. Just the same, passengers need to be informed about a handful of important concepts, particularly where the vehicles are unusual or exotic.