One of the unfortunate problems with non-news-oriented magazines is the juxtaposition of their readers' limited long-term memories coupled with the publishers' reluctance to repeat themes (much less whole articles) that are not linked to stories that reflect continuing news or problems. Unfortunately, many old messages are still of great importance. Circumventing this conundrum, I thought I would cite examples of the 10 worst and best things about bus and coach vehicles and operations from my experiences - just as reminders. Should any of these pieces pique your curiosity or jog your memories, you can trace back through the last 10 years of National Bus Trader to read more about the details.
Disgraceful, Embarrassing and Inexcusable
Starting with what should really be called the "bottom ten," the sequence of the following blots on our collective safety consciousness suggest nothing about their comparative recklessness or stupidity. Instead, they merely represent the stream-of-consciousness of my thought processes and uneven long-term memory:
- Hours of Service Requirements. One can drive for 8 hours starting Midnight, Sunday, drive again at 4 PM Sunday afternoon for another 8 hours, and then begin again 8 AM Monday morning. If you've not run over at least 10 pedestrians by 4 PM Monday afternoon, you can start driving that midnight, and continuing this pattern until your brain turns to jelly. If you do not care about other people's lives, actually try this for a few days and see for yourself why our 1937 regulatory structure is so recalcitrant and so dangerous. To be fair, its not the most stupid idea along these lines Americans have come up with. In the early 1900s, our Navy actually placed sailors on a six-hour day when out-at sea: Two hours' watch, two hours' recreation, and two hours' sleep. Try doing this for a few days and see how many ships you can see on the horizon, or even in a marina. By comparison, one has to wonder why things like drunk driving are illegal.
- Mirror Attachment. During my investigation of a transit wheel crush incident, I actually examined a bus whose curb-side exterior mirrors were mounted to the door, rather than to the body. So when the door swung open, the mirror image rotated 90 degrees. Consequently, the driver had a choice of setting through his mirrors when his bus was moving, or using them to observe the danger zone when it stopped to board or alight passengers - but obviously not both.
- Rear Door "Engagement." A common theme among many accidents, particularly when drivers contribute to them by prematurely closing rear doors on alighting passengers, many of the most expensive rear doors are configured to open both in saloon door fashion or automatically via the passenger pushing on the "yellow tape:" When the passenger alighting saloon door fashion lets go of the door, it swings back immediately into the face of the passenger directly behind. In contrast, when opened by a passenger touching the yellow tape, the door generally remains open until the driver closes it - although I have come across some of these models pre-set to close after a pause of several seconds. (And there is no end to the tricks that drivers and mechanics can play with this technology.) Particularly if you are the second or more passenger to alight from the rear, and you do not know how the passenger in front of you opened the door, you have no idea what the door is going to now do: Will it swing back into your face? Will it remain open indefinitely? Or will it play passenger-smash roulette - closing on the unfortunate passenger whose traipsing down the stepwell coincides with the timing of the door's closing. On intelligently-designed buses, the drivers simply open and close the rear doors. Of course, if and when they do so on a passenger, they and their employers possess the sole liability for it. Installing a moronic door instead deflects much or (if the driver can convince the jury) all of the exposure onto the door and bus manufacturer.
- Step Treadles. Another example of engineering wizardry from the transit sector, interlocks were configured to keep the rear doors open as long as 40 lbs. or more were placed on the bottom step of the rear stepwell (once the door was open, of course). This was pretty handy when an alighting passenger first placed a few grocery bags on the bottom step (except, perhaps, for the last bag, which was smashed as the door closed on it). The consequences were worse, of course, for a mother with a small, 25-pound child climbing down the cliff-size steps behind her: While the child contemplated the 14-inch drop to the street (let us not pretend that all drivers pull their buses to the curb, or that "nosing in" is not a popular technique), the rear door closes and knocks the child backwards up the stepwell. Good thinking here. This marvel of intelligentsia survived as a technology for decades - until (usually after innumerable accidents) maintenance personnel dismantled it, or the treadles simply failed to function. (Since many of these devices could not be repaired, but rather, had to be replaced entirely, some transit agencies simply let them die a natural death.)
- Front-Mounted Bicycle Racks. While admittedly rear-mounted racks "have issues" - I suppose a well-skilled and -equipped perpetrator might actually steal one - and otherwise might require the driver to wait another 30 seconds for the cyclist to walk to the rear to remove his bike, front-mounted racks actually loaded with a bike provide a labyrinthine jungle gym for drivers to see through in gazing at the lower part of the windshield - a particularly dangerous problem when small children or animals cross in front of the bus. Why not simply give bus drivers sunglasses with grids across the lenses?
- Spiral Stepwells. Applicable only to motorcoaches, this stylish countervention [my own term] - one I suspect to be a knowingly reckless countervention - necessitates that each step not only be trapezoidal in shape, but with the short sides (and in some cases all four sides) curved. It need not be mentioned that the stage-right sides of these steps (i.e., those on the right for passengers descending), are generally half the length of the average adult's foot - a fact compounded by the fact that few descending passengers make an effort to place their heels flush against the back edge of the step. Particularly as 60% of all motorcoach passengers are elderly, we may as well have them enter and exit the coach via rock-climbing walls.
- Front Door-Only Kneeling Features. Since alighting is more dangerous than boarding, and only alighting is allowed at the rear doors, it is curious why only the front doors of most transit buses are kneeled - especially since passengers boarding and alighting from them are directly visible to the driver only a few feet away, while passengers alighting at the rear appear the size of blurred postage stamps through the pair of interior, convex mirrors used to help the driver observe them. Trying to even locate the convex mirror above the rear stepwell through the tiny spot mirror in the curb-side upper corner of the header is a feat all by itself. Trying to make sense of the image is visual virtuosity. Particularly since many drivers nose their buses in, why would one configure a bus to kneel at the front yet let passengers alight at the unkneeled rear doors into a triangular or trapezoidal "gray zone?"
- Vertical Tow Hooks. If your duty cycle takes your bus or coach up a driveway, or if the roadway surface is "urban 21st Century quality," bonging the tow hooks not only stops the bus on a dime - think about the change in inertial forces exerted on standees - but leads to stress fractures and other bus damage, not to mention knocking out a few elderly passengers' dentures. Some manufacturers have simply addressed this problem by turning these hooks sideways. One would think a solution like this might catch on.
- Handrails. The handrails common to most buses, coaches and conversions have been an ongoing mystery to me, especially after complaining about them, in print, for years, and even more curiously because installing intelligible versions would not even involve what is known at the manufacturing level as an "engineering change." The interior of almost every building in the developed world (and most in the undeveloped world) place a railing on one or both sides of the steps that lies roughly 30 inches or so above the imaginary line drawn through the outer edges of the steps. So too do escalators. You even find them commonly on conveyor belts. Why do we instead place two or three short sections on different points of each side of the stepwell, all at different angles, so that passengers must leap from one to the other to get a grip? If we want our passengers playing hopscotch, would it not make more sense to let them do it in the aisles?
- Rubber Footstools. As there are companies (e.g. Safetystep.net) that actually make stable, professional footstools specific for the transportation industry (SafetyStep sold more than 50,000, mostly one at a time, to motorhome owners who are not even common carriers), one has to wonder why a device designed and sold to help one fetch a can of peas off the top kitchen shelf would be used to help passengers descend from a 14-inch-high motorcoach's bottom step - particularly when the stool is placed on an unstable surface. In all fairness, such stools might help weed out the weakest of a bus full of acrobats or gymnasts.
- One, Two and Three-Point Wheelchair Securement Systems. The most modern versions of the three remaining manufacturers of these devices (at least that I know of) have seemingly addressed virtually every practical problem - including reducing the time it takes to secure a garden-variety chair and the difficulty of securing an exotic, three-wheeled scooter. So why are there still C-clamps on many transit buses (useless for motorized chairs and teeth-jarrers for manual chairs that must be smashed into place by the drive)? Why three-point plates? Tracks and spaced too closely together? "Hip-bone-to-thigh-bone" configurations where the shoulder hooks onto nubs or buckles on the lap belts, and the lap belts onto loops on the rear wheelchair belts? (If one of the wheelchair straps is unfastened or loose - usually the rear one against the vehicle's sidewall, the rest of the equipment is merely "draped" over the occupant.) Could it be that the ADA does not even require wheelchair securement? If so, why would one expect the manufacturers to care?
- Wheelchair Securement Areas. The ADA requires that both lift platforms and securement areas be 48 inches long. Did the Act's authors forget to also require the crane needed to actually lift a 48-inch chair into a 48-inch long securement area when of these devices actually lands itself on board?
Sorry, that's 12. I got carried away before having to actually do any research. This list could obviously be much longer.
Truth and Consequences
If the reader was paying attention, he or she may have noticed that the lion's share of these grenades are transit industry creations, not motorcoach creations. Could Federal funds paying for 80 percent of the vehicles have had anything to do with it? What about using the ancient White Book as the starting (or ending) point for developing specifications? If so, what is our excuse as a motorcoach industry for our failures - including the near absence of any U.S. manufacturers of integral motorcoaches? Were American manufacturers simply swept away by superior European counterparts? What about regulations like the HOS (motorcoach version only, of course) and ADA?
Because their regulations contain no retrofit provisions, West coast school districts are swamped with schoolbuses with obsolete crossing equipment because, until 1991, only Crown and Gillig met California, Oregon or Washington specifications - and lots of 20- and 30-year-old models of these semi-integral leviathans, and a few 40-year-olds, are still cruising these states' highways and byways. The two 1989-vintage TAM 260 schoolbus prototypes - one of which was crash-tested - were repainted, deployed in motorcoach service, and are still on the road today - deployed, quite heavily, I might add, since their owner can actually offer his field trip customers the only fully-schoolbus-certified over-the-road, integral motorcoaches in the country (albeit not quite so luxuriously outfitted). This durability is roughly equivalent to 80 years in a school bus duty cycle.
I remember as a small child when we used to laugh at the quality of Japanese-manufactured toys and other products. The edge we held as an industrial society at that time seemed insurmountable. Yet we cannot attribute the fall-off of our technological edge in a few decades to outsourcing to countries with lower wage rates. Laborers do not design the products. Their designers and engineers do. Of course, these designers and engineers do not come from countries ranked 38th in education. Nor can we blame our shortcomings on stupid elected officials. The key is the word "elected." We can only blame them on stupid voters.
If the dozen examples I cited above failed to grab your attention, it would seem that we are now behind because we have stopped thinking and stopped innovating. It is not for no reason that U.S. bus trade shows are dominated by vehicles manufactured abroad. It is also not for no reason that the European versions of the same buses contain features a decade ahead of those same models sold here.
If the U.S. is to regain at least a marginal leadership role in product development, each industrial sector must do its part. We are clearly not doing ours for the most part. Yet there is hope. Part II of this series will present a handful of clever if not brilliant innovations in bus and coach technology and operations that could not have arrived at a better time, since we have little long-term future as a purely automobile society on a planet whose ice is melting, whose water is becoming warmer and dirtier, and whose air is, in some places, barely breathable.
We are now at a stage where the bus industry can make its greatest contribution. But questions remain: Will we continue to churn out Federally- funded white elephants like the ATTB project ($50M)? Will our industry intelligentsia continue to introduce crayon-level hybrids like body-on-chassis vehicles powered with lithium ion batteries? We shall see. The next article will provide a glimpse of the potential that genuine innovation holds. And it will demonstrate what American ingenuity can still do when those at the forefront of it apply ourselves.