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Little in public transportation is as challenging as driving load upon load of wheelchair occupants, with unique needs (and often unique chairs), in all directions, with last-minute one-of-a-kind trips dispatched into tight schedules created days, or even weeks, in advance. Yet this is precisely what paratransit drivers do - hour after hour, day after day.

Such routines are demanding for even career drivers. They are often overwhelming for new ones:

  • On his first day of solo operations, a paratransit driver picked up a wheelchair occupant 90 minutes behind schedule, spent an hour trying (unsuccessfully) to secure her chair, got lost, traveled in the wrong direction down a freeway ramp, made a U-turn at the bottom, scraped a guard rail, ignored calls from his dispatcher, ignored pleas from his passenger, disappeared from radio contact altogether for 90 minutes, and finally reached the passenger's home almost five hours late. In the process, the passenger and chair were jostled so badly that she sustained bruises, her urine bag broke (scalding her legs with uric acid), her feeding tube disconnected, and she missed taking five of her 29 scheduled medications.

Such chaos is not relegated to new drivers:

  • Another paratransit driver, with nearly two decades of military experience in medical evacuation, watched a passenger wedge his electric scooter between the lift gate and wheel well. When he allegedly declined her single request to reposition it, she left his scooter covering part of the rear securement track, and secured it at only the left rear and single front wheel positions. Because the shoulder belt was designed to attach to the waist belt, and the waist belt to the wheelchair belt - neither the passenger's waist nor his shoulder belt were therefore attached at all. When the van either stopped short or turned sharply (the driver's accounts conflict), the obliquely-positioned/partially-secured scooter and unsecured passenger tipped over, breaking loose the passenger's hip replacement.

Nor are such mishaps confined to paratransit service:

  • After loading a wheelchair occupant via the lift, a shuttle bus driver failed to secure her chair to the vehicle, or the passenger into her chair. When the vehicle accelerated, the chair flipped over backwards, breaking her neck. The driver claimed he didn't know the chair required securement, didn't know the bus contained devices for this purpose (much less where they were stored), and never noticed the track fittings on the floor and rear wall (much less knew what they were for).

Lessons from Paratransit Operations

During my 10 years directing the operations of a large paratransit system, nothing resembling these scenarios remotely occurred. The reasons for this were numerous, ranging from a coherent system design to the regular review of drivers' logs. But one factor which contributed significantly was the progressive assignment of drivers to routes of increasing complexity and responsibility. Virtually all drivers advanced through a series of carefully-regimented steps:

  • Drivers rode along, solely as observers, with experienced drivers
  • Drivers served as attendants
  • Drivers operated loose routes with only ambulatory passengers, while observed and supervised by training instructors or "senior drivers"
  • Drivers operated tight routes with ambulatory and non-ambulatory passengers, while observed and supervised by senior drivers doubling as navigators and attendants
  • Drivers operated in solo service on loose routes with only ambulatory passengers
  • Drivers operated loose routes with ambulatory and non-ambulatory passengers
  • Drivers operated tight routes with ambulatory and non-ambulatory passengers
  • Drivers served as "cover" drivers - assigned to routes otherwise left vacant by vacations, sick-leave, turnover, expansion, system change or other variables
  • Drivers served as senior drivers - monitoring, evaluating and supervising the performance of new drivers

Following this progression, those drivers eventually assigned to challenging routes had assimilated a considerable range and depth of post-training experience. These advanced skills built upon, and refined, layers of pre-service training in defensive driving, loading and unloading, wheelchair securement, passenger securement, map reading and service area orientation, CPR, emergency first aid, seizures, radio communications, vehicle handling, passenger handling, sensitivity, passenger management, evacuation and record-keeping. Because drivers executed most of these procedures routinely (CPR and evacuation were the exceptions), their experiences not only reinforced their training, but refined and enhanced it. So while experienced drivers undoubtedly made minor errors and omissions, major ones - like failing to secure a wheelchair or passenger - were almost unthinkable.

To accommodate such a progression, of course, a long list of system elements were carefully coordinated. Among them, drivers were assigned to early or late shifts according to their sleep-wakefulness cycles: "Larks" to early A.M. and P.M. shifts, and\C2 "owls" to late ones. Regardless, driver assignment criteria governed many other system characteristics - not the reverse.

Was our driver assignment perfect? Of course not. Particularly during periods of driver shortages, flu season, system growth, and low unemployment rates (among others), steps in the progression were often skipped. However, because the progression was so heavily-emphasized and universally-applied, its basic principles were rarely, if ever, violated. This meant that new drivers were almost never assigned to tight routes containing wheelchair occupants. Equally important, drivers assigned to difficult and challenging routes were almost always prepared for them. During the scores of times I myself "filled in" (sometimes by choice, other times by necessity), I never once transported a wheelchair occupant. And I rarely ran behind schedule.

A curious feature of most post-ADA paratransit systems is the virtual absence of any logic or criteria for driver assignment. Yet paratransit service can hardly be singled out for this omission: Few transit, pupil transportation or motorcoach operations employ them either. Misplaced blame for this omission is often focused on the union environment - whereby seniority comprises the basis for driver assignment, and many of the most seasoned drivers select "milk runs." However, even in organized labor environments, illogical driver assignment and non-existent criteria more often reflect inept or non-existent system design, poor policy-making, poor management, and a lack of imagination, caring or bothering. Truth be known, the vast majority of good drivers prefers tight, logical and demanding schedules. Of course, good drivers view themselves as "professionals."

Motorcoach Challenges

What has all this to do with motorcoach service? A lot. Apart from phasing in ADA requirements, and the management- and driver-related difficulties likely to accompany them, motorcoach drivers have other challenging tasks - and other challenging passengers. Among them, roughly 30 percent of motorcoach passengers are schoolchildren (transported on field or activity trips). Because much of motorcoach service is comprised of intercity service, it follows that close to half of all charter trips are provided to schoolchildren. Few motorcoach drivers have any training in passenger management. They don't know the individual passengers, much less their individual characteristics or needs. Motorcoach drivers do not enjoy the recourse provided to schoolbus drivers via their linkages to parents, teachers, principals and chaperones. And students rarely receive training for motorcoach travel. Given such constraints, many otherwise excellent motorcoach drivers are no match for a busload of noisy, hyperactive adolescents bouncing around on a 20-ton vehicle barreling down a freeway - often at night, often in inclement weather. Within the work force available for this challenge, only its best and brightest should be assigned to it.

Coupled with other problems, motorcoach accidents involving schoolchildren are starting to draw more and more attention and scrutiny. Frankly, they are beginning to give motorcoach service a bad name - particularly within the pupil transportation community. Shrinking the ranks of student passengers could have a devastating impact on a competitive business already operating on a thin profit margin. So will law suits accompanying its failures. So too will the costs associated with additional safeguards - like occupant restraints, flight recorders and fatigue monitors. While certainly not the magic answer, nor necessarily the most important one, matching motorcoach drivers to their tasks can make a big difference.

Playing Out in Court

Within the context of personal injury lawsuits, one cannot hide from poor policy-making, poor training, poor management or poor driving. When incidents occur with new drivers, their employers are fodder. When these incidents occur with seasoned drivers, fingers point to the layers of management and policy-making above them. After all, how could experienced drivers make such mistakes if properly directed, trained, monitored and supervised? Sadly, many incidents could have been avoided had drivers been assigned to tasks commensurate with their abilities and experience.

One of the best defenses to a tort claim is to demonstrate that the incident occurred despite carefully-thought-out and systematically-applied hiring, training, monitoring, evaluation, supervision, management, maintenance, system design, planning and policy-making. But defendants must earn the right to such a defense by performing according to safe and effective standards and practices. When a wheelchair clangs around in the passenger compartment, or a passenger flies into the stepwell or dashboard, lawyers and their experts can argue "the thing speaks for itself" (res ipsa loquitur in legal parlance). Woe be the defendant whose operations demonstrate it.

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Ned Einstein is the President of Transportation Alternatives, a passenger transportation and automotive consortium engaged in consulting and forensic accident investigation and analysis (more than 350 cases). Specializes in elderly, disabled, schoolchildren. Mr. Einstein has been qualified as an Expert Witness in accident analysis, testimony and mediation in vehicle and pedestrian accidents involving transit, paratransit, schoolbus, motorcoach, special education, non-emergency medical transportation, taxi, shuttle, child transport systems and services...

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