Everything but the Right Answer

As both public transportation experts and the general public know, recent years have experienced an increasing number of catastrophic bus accidents – most where motorcoach drivers of small “Mom & Pop” companies were operating charter service. This pattern began when former President Reagan “deregulated” the motorcoach industry – which now contains more than 4,000 single-bus-owner companies deploying mostly “mothball” coaches. But it took root far more deeply when, more than a decade ago, the industry’s two “umbrella information-sharing organizations lobbied intensely for an exemption from the solution – a solution that both the U.S trucking industry and Canadian motorcoach industries embraced enthusiastically. The regulatory change would have prevented a driver from beginning a shift more than three hours earlier or later than the one he or she drove the day before. In other words, it would have prevented or greatly reduced “bus lag” – the phenomenon whereby a driver is operating a 45,000-lbs.  motorcoach with 55 passengers at precisely the time his or her body was sound asleep the day before. Particularly with small, poor, desperate companies with few nor no choices for drivers (usually the bus’ owner), they will accept almost any trip, for any length of time, to any place – resulting in what I have called Bus Lag (see my monthly series of articles about this subject in National Bus Trader magazine, beginning in September, 2014 (“Bus Lag, Part 1: Non-driving, Off-Duty and Awake the Whole Time”) and (“Bus Lag, Part 2: On Duty, Driving, and Sound Asleep”).

With the bread of the motorcoach industry’s lobbying organizations is “buttered” by casinos, amusement parks, Broadway, national parks and countless other money-making attractions and venues throughout the country, the last thing these destinations want to do is remove these vehicle from our roadways. Instead, here are the things they have chosen to do:

  • In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is being ordered, by Congress, to require the installation of three-point seatbelts on all motorcoaches – effectively quadrupling or quintupling the “loads” on the seats, and requiring the commensurate increase in both seatback and anchorage strengths – and adding roughly 1500 lbs. and from $20,000 to $30,000 to every coach (making them “overweight in the process where, like overloaded trucks, they increase the deterioration of our highways.)
  • Congress is also talking about requiring NHTSA to devise regulations for “dynamic” rollover tests to motorcoaches to minimize the damage when these accident scenarios occur  – scenarios where roughly two passengers a year (out of a population of more than 300,000,000) are ejected each year. This change will not only add several thousand pounds of additional weight to the structure of the coach, but at the roof level, will raise the coach’s center-of-gravity several inches, and as a result, will cause an increase in rollovers in the first place.
  • While generally compartmentalized seats (with the protection of schoolbus seats) have been integrated into three-point belt systems since 2009 – when they began dominating the market in response to a huge law suit in 2008 (and in all newly-manufactured schoolbuses since 1977) – there is no requirement for the inclusion of compartmentalized seating in motorcoaches, an inclusion that will result in no increase in cost or weight.
  • Finally, insurance companies are talking loudly about QUADRUPLING insurance rates for all motor carriers, safe and otherwise – as though these often taxpayer-bailed-out companies are losing 80% of their profits from premiums, which we all know is a complete fantasy.

The answer to this labyrinth of corruption and stupidity is to simply eliminate the motorcoach industry’s exemption from the changes in the “hours-of-service” regulations embraced by our trucking industry years ago, increase law enforcement at the Federal, state and local levels to ensure compliance with the new changes (just as they do with our trucking industry), and remove from service – possibly with reasonable prison terms for their owners – every motorcoach whose driver begins a shift more than three hours earlier or later than the one he or she drove the day before (and, of course, enforcing compliance with the other, far less important provisions of the existing “Hours-of-Service” regulations).

While eliminating hundreds of fatalities and serious injuries a year from the public transportation landscape, the reduction in catastrophic accidents this measure would effect would likely reduce a handful of bonanzas obtained by the victims’ attorneys. But because the companies that cause these accident rarely have the insurance coverage to compensate the victims, many of these attorneys have over-extended their lawsuits to also sue the bus and coach manufacturers, and recently, a seating manufacturer and even two international tire companies – none of which were remotely responsible for the accidents—were sued and forced to settle for huge sums of money. Clearly, at the time these coaches were built (one in 1998, the other in 2001), few coach buyer in the country would have purchased a single one with either three-point seatbelts or compartmentalized seats. (Plus only a fraction of the motorcoaches on the road at that time were new; many were more than 20 years old.)  So how and why these manufacturers were sued for enormous amounts – one settled for $30,000,000 in a 2011 lawsuit in which I helped defend the seating company (which settled for peanuts thanks to myself and that of a fellow-expert – is yet another travesty of this pattern of events. But, by God, no one can ever say our slot machines are being underutilized.