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As NBT readers of my past columns well know, my perspective on accidents and their causation is pretty skewed because I spend most of my professional time examining their details. So minor operating problems and vehicle deficiencies that most members of the industry rarely notice stand out like sparklers to me, since I may spend weeks or even months focusing on the carnage that can occasionally surround a few small features or procedures that could have been produced or performed better.

Quirks and Quivers

Quite a few of the lawsuits in which I have been involved were related to some of a motorcoach's or full-size bus' unusual features. Prominent among these are:

  • The Vehicle's Long Wheelbase. As a consequence of its wheelbase, motorcoaches and full-size buses do not turn like automobiles, vans or pickup trucks, and their front and rear tires "track" differently. As a consequence, an oncoming motorist, pedestrian, bicyclist or motorcyclist approaching a large bus or coach about to turn at an intersection will often perceive it as about to proceed straight through the intersection: Motorists obviously cannot be expected to know an oncoming driver's intensions. Regardless, vehicles with large wheelbases must begin their turns only after their rear axles align with the near-side, extended curb line. Once the front of the vehicle begins turning, the body pivots on the rear tires, and the "steel wave" begins encroaching on vehicle or pedestrians alongside it. The ambiguity of this feature can be compounded by errors or poor judgments by the bus or coach driver - errors such as trying to make it through a yellow light with oncoming traffic too close, or failing to capture the passage of vehicles traveling alongside the bus or coach in the exterior, rear-view mirrors.
  • Undersized Loading Lights. Unlike schoolbuses, which engage four large, bright-red flashing lights and a stop arm before boarding or alighting their passengers, motorcoaches and transit buses usually contain only a handful of roof-mounted "loading lights" -lights usually engaged by the driver (in contrast to schoolbus crossing devices that are usually engaged automatically when the front door is merely "cracked" open). In my experiences, only a small percentage of motorists approaching a transit bus or motorcoach even notice these lights engaged, much less grasp their significance. Yet their significance can be awesome, particularly on transit buses where, unless schoolbuses, there passengers are supposed to cross behind the bus. But motorists approaching the bus may not know this. Further, practically half of the more than 60 crossing-related lawsuits in which I have been involved have occurred when third-party vehicles struck adults crossing at the wrong end of the vehicle than they were supposed to, with the bus or coach posing a sightline blockage between the two during much of the crossing, as the oncoming vehicle approaches.
  • Bumper Misalignment. The lower side of a bus or coach's bumper - particularly a high-floor bus - is often higher than the upper surface of a typical automobile's bumper. I am not sure this misalignment is even legal. But I am certain no one ever makes an issue of it. Regardless, when a regular automobile rear-ends a bus or coach, the car's bumper under-rides the latter's higher-mounted bumper - providing a smidgeon of the protecting colliding bumpers otherwise would. As a consequence, the bus or coach bumper's underside is often above the car's hood, and as the approaching automobile submarines beneath the bus or coach bumper, the latter's body begins chopping off the upper portion of the automobile, often along with the heads of its driver and/or passengers. The same phenomenon can occur with a "T-bone" collision by the automobile, since either the bus has only an illusion of any structure below the floor level (typical of most schoolbuses) or a relatively weak structure compared to the sidewalls lying above the floor level.

Noteworthy and Noticeable Solutions

Interestingly, the way to prevent or mitigate a lot of accidents involving these themes is not to redesign or reengineer the bus or coach. Instead, a handful of existing and traditional features can be exaggerated in size, color or brightness to provide more noticeable warnings to the non-professional/non-bus-driving motorists who confront them. These adjustments would generally involve limited cost, could be easily manufactured by a squadron of competitive suppliers, and could even be retrofitted with little cost and effort. And even those that may involve regulatory changes would be so minor that resistance to such changes would be unlikely. Among the solutions that might address the problems noted above:

  • The sides of the turning bus or coach could light up as it turned - triggered automatically by the combination of (a) front wheels turning significantly (b) in a short amount of space (c) at a relatively slow speed (i.e., a pull-in, pull-out or when cornering). The vehicle's turning side (i.e., the part of the body forming the diagonal as the rear tires "track" behind the front ones) could be made to glow by any number of low- to medium-cost technologies. For example, a string of tiny bulbs with "shades" (to spread out the light) could engage, with lenses whose colors would change the color of the sidewall, if even slightly, during daylight hours, and easily turn it aglow in darkness. Where motorists or pedestrians are positioned alongside the bus or coach, and cannot view the turn signals, this feature could convey the same information. For those motorists or pedestrians alongside the bus who are occasionally caught in the "steel wave" (see ____, 20__ issue of NBT), the color-change or intensity-enhancement could be augmented by some form of alarm signal - assuming that every unique sound has not already been assembled into the almost endless collection of "ring tones."
  • The intensity of turn signal bulbs and the size and shape of their lens covers could be significantly enhanced and reshaped to draw attention to them in almost cartoon-like fashion. Further, one might also consider using strobe lights - although the regulatory environment for this degree of change would likely be harder to adopt. Regardless, the goal would be to make the turn signal more prominent than the vehicle itself, during those moments it is intending to turn.
  • The simplest and astonishingly-low-cost solution to bumper misalignment would be to simply "stripe" the lower edge of the bumper with reflective "danger tape." Another approach would be to simply paint those non-chrome bumpers an unusual color - like the lime-green colors one occasionally finds on fire trucks, or perhaps "emergency orange." Or the bumper could be painted with a threatening pattern, such as a saw tooth, knife blade, shark tooth or perhaps even some gothic imagery. While the latter treatment may seem a bit overboard, there is nothing overboard about creating something that might increase the following distance behind a bus or coach, even if a motorists might misinterpret the warning to simply suggest "beware of colliding with something this massive."

Creativity and Frugality

It is not unusual for creativity to spring up in response to challenges. The creation of compartmentalized seating (required on schoolbuses of all sizes) and increased emergency exits on buses and coaches are two familiar examples of how our creative genes are often triggered by catastrophic accidents. While the vehicle features described above rarely cause catastrophic accidents, they do periodically effect a death or serious injury. Regardless, their solutions need not be complex or costly. Our industry is living in increasingly frugal times, and the more a bus or coach costs, the fewer of them will be on the road - creating a far more serious safety deficiency since the rate of fatalities and serious injuries among bus and coach riders is exponentially lower than that of any other ground transportation mode apart from passenger rail (which operates on an exclusive guideway, apart from the mélange that comprises the general traffic stream). So clever, low-cost tweaks to features of an otherwise already-safe transportation mode that, nevertheless, kills or maim an individual periodically, seems appropriate.

If a chameleon (among many other species, particularly sea creatures) can change its color to mimic its surroundings, and its brain is pea-like in size compared to ours, the small tweaks I cited above should hardly prevent a challenge to a large-brained creature not constrained (like dolphins or whales) by the need to reside mostly in an underwater environment. Accordingly, I suspect that a considerable number of highly-competitive suppliers would be able to concoct the solutions suggested above, much less in retrofit format, as a mere sideline or afterthought to their main product lines.

Compared to newsworthy phenomena like catastrophic motorcoach accidents, the problems cited here are barely asterisks. But they are not asterisks to the victims and their families. Small problems may justify only small solutions. But small solutions are really all these problems require. We became the strongest nation this planet has ever known by our cleverness, savvy and often our boldness. I feel we still possess these qualities, and see no reason we cannot squeeze out a handful of tiny modifications that, for little cost, would make our vehicles even safer than they already are.

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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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