Since driving a 20- or 25-ton motorcoach is touted as so being difficult, it is only fair to ask why so much carnage, and so many law suits, occur apart from collisions. In particular, the number of incidents occurring at or near stops seems largely disproportionate to the perceived simplicity of handling things when the bus or coach is stationary.
Magnets for Mayhem
Bus and coach drivers have alternatives to discharging passengers into or onto potholes, cracked curbs, snow, ice and wet cement. Yet:
- Under dim streetlights, a transit driver discharged an elderly passenger, in the outer lane, adjacent to a coned-off construction area. On his third step, the passenger fell into a trench.
- Caught in a red light, a transit driver discharged several passengers on the wrong side of the intersection three feet from the curb – a distance which all but the first passenger could not gauge until they reached the bottom step. One victim discovered this gap while stretching to reach what turned out to be a shattered curb.
- Compounding the vehicle’s irregularly-configured stepwell, a paratransit driver parked on an angle, on a sloped driveway, where his elderly passenger was forced to step onto a tiny triangle of curbing. Grabbing her right elbow and wrist, the driver flipped her off the vehicle onto this landing area.
- Caught in a light, another transit driver discharged an elderly woman in the travel lane adjacent to a barricaded construction area. Her third step landed in a patch of wet cement.
- Pulling into his regular spot at a fire hydrant, one bus-length from a cleared transit stop, a shuttle driver discharged another elderly passenger onto a snow bank.
- Failing to announce the stop needed by his visually-impaired passenger, a transit driver then discharged him before reaching the next designated stop. In the pre-dawn darkness, the disoriented passenger fell down a dew-covered grassy embankment.
Occasionally, negligence may occur at the stop during boarding:
- Instead of loading his elderly passenger with her walker via the wheelchair lift, a paratransit driver permitted her to climb onto the van from a decorative cinderblock her attendant had stored near the stop.
- After unloading a wheelchair occupant, a schoolbus driver returned to the driver’s seat and promptly ran over an elderly woman standing directly in front of the windshield where she had been trying to flag a passing taxi that might have stopped behind the bus had the driver engaged its red flashers.
Some drivers discharge passengers involved in violence as quickly as possible. While drivers certainly have a responsibility to protect fellow passengers, alighting a mix of perpetrators and victims can escalate the violence:
- After being insulted with a racial epithet, one of three hoodlums grabbed the insulting teenager’s backpack before stepping off the bus. The victim alighted to retrieve it, grabbed it, and the thugs then chased him back to the bus. Perhaps afraid this m�l�e might re-enter the bus, the driver locked the victim out, and the bus remained in place while passengers watched the gang-bangers pummel him into a vegetable.
- Immediately before alighting, another hoodlum cursed out a well-dressed adult who had just complained about the volume of his ghetto-blaster. The adult ran down the stepwell, grabbed the hoodlum and pulled him back onto the bus – where the frightened teenager pulled a gun and wildly shot three uninvolved passengers.
- After transporting an obvious junkie to three successive crack houses during the wee hours, each of which the passenger had entered ostensibly in search of the fare and from which he returned empty-handed, the taxi driver was finally instructed by his dispatcher to tell the passenger to either pay the fare or get out. When the taxi stopped, the passenger slammed the driver’s face into the steering wheel, and then climbed into the front seat and stole his cash.
Sometimes, incorrect or inappropriate stops invite or induce mayhem:
- A paratransit driver stopped, mid-route, and induced an 11-year-old boy into the van by offering him a ride home. When the pre-teenager succeeded in fending off his sexual advances, the driver beat him to a pulp and, not realizing the victim was still alive, dumped him into a gutter.
- After the first criminal impersonated (in falsetto) the victims’ mother in a telephone call to the Transportation Director, and a second hand-delivered a letter (purportedly authored by the victims’ father) forged by a third, three perpetrators convinced a school transportation system to transfer two elementary school students to a different bus and route. The perpetrators met and boarded the bus, and to the chants of “child molester” by other students, dragged the girls off the bus at knifepoint, and drove them on a two-week, cross-country rape-spree.
A number of stop-related cases involve the driver’s failure to “clear” the mirrors:
- Forced to discharge at an undersized stop (an appropriately-sized stop a block earlier lay adjacent to the showroom window of a luxury car dealer), the bus driver pulled in on an angle, compromising his view of surrounding traffic through the exterior mirrors. When the bus pulled out, its engine startled a bicyclist approaching the rear, and she swerved into the adjacent lane where she was struck by a car passing the bus.
- Another transit driver stopped away from the curb, began to pull out, stopped again, and finally closed the doors before a three-year-old girl and her nanny could reach the bus. The child broke free, ran into the street and, as it passed her by, struck the bus – and spun beneath its rear wheels.
- After first boarding with his disabled pass, a drunkard staggered off the bus and, as the driver pulled from the curb, stumbled into the gutter where the rear wheels ran him over.
- An infant in the front seat of a tandem stroller had been wheeled by her mother into a bus shelter while a parked bus awaited repair. When the bus eventually pulled out, an advertising poster mounted on one side of the shelter blocked the driver’s view into it through his curb-side exterior mirror. The noise of the approaching engine startled the infant from her stroller, and the bus’ right-rear tires rolled over her buttocks.
- After his colleague boarded a motorcoach, the guest speaker at an international conference on surgery turned and, without looking, walked into a fold-in, curb-side exterior mirror extending virtually two feet from the coach body.
The latent defects of many poorly-designed stepwells are compounded by driver errors and omissions in helping passengers use them:
- A transit driver closed the rear door (with no sensitive edge) of his articulated bus on a child. The child’s mother lurched at the doors, pushing them open and freeing her daughter, but fell out of the bus. Gripping the vertical handles which rotated outward with the doors’ opening, her arms were torn from their sockets.
- As the maladjusted rear doors of another articulated bus threatened to close during her alighting, the passenger leaned to push them open only to have them reopen before first closing. The force she now needlessly exerted caused her to lose her balance, and she slid off the stepwell feet-first.
- In violation of the ADA, a passenger rail service deployed a non-accessible motorcoach in feeder service from an unmanned, outlying station, and stored an elderly stroke victim’s wheelchair in the luggage compartment. At the destination, he slipped alighting the stepwell and fell into the arms of a railroad agent who, in the driver’s absence, was “spotting” the passenger at the bottom.
- Another motorcoach driver chatting at the bottom of the stepwell failed to catch an elderly woman as she tumbled down.
- An attendant assisting a physically-disabled special education student off a schoolbus tripped on the irregularly-shaped trapezoidal stepwell designed to accommodate an uncharacteristic jackknife door, and fell down the stepwell.
- A commuter express passenger fell out of the bus because the driver induced him into the stepwell by opening the mechanically-operated door before the bus came to a stop.
- An overweight woman’s dress caught on the ironing-board-shaped handrail of a transit bus stepwell, suspending her like a hood ornament. When her dress then ripped, she fell forward from the stepwell.
In contrast to these errors and omissions, wheelchair occupants falling off lifts or ramps are often themselves at fault and, correspondingly, the lawsuits which follow are often frivolous:
- An electric wheelchair occupant jettisoned himself off an ascending lift platform as it reached the vehicle’s floor level. A year earlier, he had zoomed off the same platform at ground level – and had not been slightly injured.
- A muscle-bound single amputee’s manual wheelchair was missing its footplates. Failing to engage one brake, his spun his chair in a circle and it twirled off the lift platform.
- After clearing several lateral braces on the ramp while descending from a high-floor van, a wheelchair occupant’s heavily-booted, extended leg slipped off a footplate as he neared the bottom of the ramp, caught on a brace, and he and his chair somersaulted off the end of the ramp.
Many passengers fall onto the floor of a stopped vehicle, or onto the ground just outside it after alighting:
- Instead of being discharged into the care of an attendant to assist her from the bus to her school, a developmentally disabled child was discharged, unassisted, into a busy parking lot, where she was knocked down by a fellow-student running through it.
- During the barely-10-foot walk from the van to her lobby door, an elderly woman’s driver thought he had left one of her belongings on the van, and abandoned her for a few moments to retrieve it. She fell immediately to the ground. What the driver had forgotten was her cane.
- Another elderly paratransit passenger was safely assisted off the vehicle onto a flat, stable surface. As the driver momentarily let go of her to close the van door before escorting her to her doorway, the passenger fell into the gutter.
- Immediately after boarding without assistance, a cognitively-impaired, overweight adult with diabetes and impaired vision tripped over a securement device left in place after her driver had earlier unloaded a wheelchair occupant.
Despite service brakes, parking brakes and wheel chocks, some drivers can’t keep their buses or coaches stopped:
- After parking his schoolbus facing downhill, a driver abandoned the bus without locking the entrance door. When three students reentered the bus and began wrestling, one of them fell into an improperly-cocked emergency brake handle mounted on the aisle-side of the driver’s compartment. The bus careened down the hill, its side-view mirror beheading one student and the bus body crushing another into quadriplegia.
- Parking nose-down on a steep hill without pointing the front wheels toward the curb, a motorcoach driver stepped off his idling bus to help the passengers alight. When the last 20 or so bunched up toward the front, the bus began rolling down the hill. When the driver leaped to assist a young passenger standing in the stepwell, the right-front tire ran over his foot.
- Without slowing, a 79-year-old motorcyclist ran into the rear of a stopped transit bus with such force that he ruptured its cooling system, and knocked the bus half a bus-length forward.
- A paratransit driver unloaded a wheelchair occupant in the dark, and abandoned her on the sidewalk while he walked around and into the building to find an accessible entrance. In the meantime, the passenger wheeled herself to what she thought might be one, and tipped over her chair during a sharp, steep incline.
Data Vacuums and Illusions
Because motorcoaches make so few stops compared to many of their passenger transportation counterparts, and because so many motorcoach fatalities involve catastrophic accidents, one might suspect that stop-related fatalities and serious injuries comprise a relatively small proportion of serious motorcoach accidents compared to those involving a moving vehicle. Yet my experiences suggest this is the case largely because moving-vehicle accidents involve multiple victims.
Accidents which occur when buses, coaches and vans are not moving are often not even recorded or classified as vehicular accidents in data bases. This illusion dies quickly in the courtroom.
The D’uh! Factor
When errors or omissions which seriously injure someone resemble slapstick, jurors are unlikely to laugh or giggle. While jurors may be horrified by the negligence leading to many collisions, they at least appreciate their complexity. When the vehicle was not even in motion, such viewpoints are less likely. The one concept defendants do not want jurors to formulate is the notion of “D’uh!” When jurors conclude “D’uh,” defendants and their underwriters begin writing checks. When the “D’uh!” factor translates into punitive damages, the checks are generally larger.
While damage awards from catastrophic and other major collisions drain the motorcoach industry, our pockets are also being emptied from incidents that occur when the vehicles are standing still. These penalties are the true costs of “idling.” While motorcoaches are parked or idling, regulators and law enforcement agencies would do well to pay less attention to the harm done by their noise and exhaust, and more attention to the harm done by negligent drivers and management.
Sound training for handling any type of commercial vehicle includes defensive driving. But it is a mistake to ignore the litany of concerns about stationary objects, many of which need merely be identified. Failing to provide such training violates an important but often-overlooked principle of safety: At least at the driver level, most incidents and accidents are not the result of things one does not know; they are the result of things one does not see. While drivers need not make the quick adjustments to most non-driving scenarios otherwise essential to driving-related circumstances, they need to at least know what they are. In the operating world, vehicles incur most of their costs when they are moving. In the liability world, they may cost more to park.