Alcohol and bus ridership present a curious enigma. As a matter of public policy, we allow intoxication. As a matter of free market dynamics, we encourage it. And rightfully so, we want to protect those intoxicated from hurting themselves and others.
In the transportation field, an important contribution to all these objectives is to "mode split" drunkards from personal occupancy vehicles to public transportation - or, more simply, turning drunken drivers into drunken passengers, while they "leave the driving to us."
While carting around otherwise-dangerously-intoxicated motorists has its obvious, merits, it also creates some dilemmas for those charged with transporting them along with fellow-passengers, drunk or sober. One problem is the violent behavior drunken passengers are likely to engage in. The other is the presence of alcohol in glass containers on board a moving vehicle. When these two problems are compounded, the risks may be amplified exponentially.
Drinking and Riding
Beyond keeping drunken drivers off the road, motorcoach transportation is unique among public transportation modes in that it often permits and encourages drunken passengers to ride, but also to have fun, including drinking even more:
- Just missing his motorcoach's noon-time pickup, an already intoxicated alcoholic purchased two additional six packs to help pass the time until the next coach's arrival several hours later. When the coach arrived, the driver ordered the obviously-intoxicated passenger to store his remaining 10 cans of beer in the luggage bays. When the passenger nastily refused, the driver appropriately forbid his boarding, and left him at the stop - a bus shelter several feet away from a high-speed, multiple-lane freeway - with roughly a gallon of beer and three hours in which to drink it while awaiting the next coach. The moment the driver made this decision, he and his company effectively washed their hands of him - even though local police were often summoned to safeguard similar passengers and testified to it. Fortunately, the alcoholic did not wander out into the traffic stream. But he did fall flat on his face, and suffered serious permanent injuries.
- At roughly 8 PM, a "drinking bus" in Northern Louisiana picked up a coach full of serious drinkers for a four-hour jaunt to the French Quarter, allowing them to prepare to "do Nawlins" by loading a number of coolers on board, along with bottles and glasses. The coach reached New Orleans at midnight, unleashed its already-snockered riders into the French Quarter for six more hours of drinking bliss, and finally picked them up at 6 AM for the four-hour return trip - along with more coolers, glass bottles and glass glasses. When a dispute erupted between two passengers, one perpetrator broke a full bottle of bourbon (what else?) over a fellow-passenger's head, and a large shard of glass was jettisoned into the eyeball of an uninvolved, seated bystander.
Principles and Predicaments
In the first case above, the defendant's Motion to Dismiss was granted. Evidently, that judge felt that once the ticket-carrying alcoholic was denied service, the carrier bore no remote responsibility for safeguarding his health and welfare. The second case was settled, but the settlement fell short of the windfall it deserved.
These two cases, and the outcomes of their lawsuits, illustrate the capricious fragmentation of our legal system when it comes to responsibilities for impaired passengers: One driver of a non-drinking coach was relieved of all responsibility - a responsibility that could have been executed a half dozen ways, including several (like the dispatcher calling the local police) that would have involved only seconds. The other driver of a coach whose trip purpose was drinking was held liable when the activities the trip enticed simply ran their course.
Dancing in the Dark
In my research for the second of these cases, I actually discovered the existence of a dance bus. At 70 mph, while their 45-foot-long dance-floor swerved around freeway curves, up and down hills, and over dips, bumps and rumble strips - with its floor rolling, pitching and yawing continually, and with the interior lights turned off to reveal the "planetarium motif" - these whirling dervishes swung, bowed and Charlestoned up and down the aisles, drinks in hand in fancy glassware, and bartenders continually filled them from glass bottles whose empties rolled around the undulating floor like so many unspent grenades. One professional passenger (a "working girl" hired to escalate the excitement) actually used the vertical stanchions as "stripper poles" when she wasn't lap dancing on seated passengers.
Apart from the absolute recklessness of such events from a technical perspective, the most striking aspect of this carnage-in-waiting was the fact that this coach operator apparently managed to obtain insurance coverage. In contrast, many small and medium-size fleet operators in New York City must choose among the only three underwriters who will even "issue paper" - even to companies with decade-long, accident-free records. Costs for ensuring a single coach approximates $20,000 a year.
Cross Purposes and Cross-Subsidies
What is wrong with this picture? Call me crazy, but I suspect that the risks of the dance bus are some degree greater than even the most marginally-safe, traditional operators in the Northeast Corridor. So one has to ask: What is going on here?
The answers lie in the deep shadows of the insurance industry, where many underwriters thrive in their murky, evasive efforts to avoid defining any reasonable notion of risk. The result of such practices, and the mythology that only a long, multi-year track record can differentiate the safe operators from the unsafe ones, have the obvious effect that the premiums paid by the majority of safe operators effectively cross-subsidize the handful of crazies who throw caution to the wind, and who recklessly disregard the most obvious principles of safety - including the important understanding of, and respect for, the consequences of inertial and centrifugal force.
By now, many readers of this column should be feeling pretty angry, if not victimized. If one's insurance premiums apparently have no bearing on operating safety, why are we failing to exploit the cornucopia of opportunities that creative charter and tour companies could provide? Why not make some real money? How about:
- The bowling bus?
- The bocce bus?
- The conga line bus (the salsa band can set up on the rear divan)?
- The triple-jump bus (My teenage niece can only jump 31 feet, well within the length of a 45-footers passenger aisle)?
Talking about making money, I am just getting started. In fact, I am chock full of swell ideas, and I am giving them away here, in National Bus Trader, for free. How about:
- The pit bull fight bus?
- The tug-of-war bus?
- The mud-wrestling bus?
- The archery bus?
- The driving-range bus?
- The darts bus?
- The running of the baby bulls bus (I recommend Irizars)?
- The shuffleboard bus?
- The hop-scotch bus?
- The break-dancing bus?
- The dodge-ball bus?
- The driving-range bus?
- The timed-trial, wheelchair race bus (after all, motorcoaches are increasingly required to accommodate wheelchair users, many of whom are athletic marvels despite their physiological constraints)?
- The pommel horse bus?
A full-size motorcoach's longitudinal center aisle is nothing if not ideal for more purposes than a normal person's imagination can hold. Since our creativity does not appear constrained by insurance requirements, why are we limiting our tour and charter markets to such boring fare as jaunts to museums and casinos? And regarding the latter, why not simply install slot machines to the rears of seat cushions and drive the passengers around in circles (or for lower fares, not move the vehicle at all)?
Symptoms and Problems
Time and time again during the past six years I have written about safety and liability for NBT. I have argued that much of what we classify as problems are merely their symptoms. In this context, it is only fair to ask what problem lurks beneath the dance bus. While obviously market-driven, what institutional environments - or their failures - permit it? In a society oversaturated with litigation, how do some of our worst perpetrators manage to stay in business, much less thrive? And, once again, who do we think is paying for all this risk?
Inebriated passengers have been thematic of numerous law suits in which I have participated. These cases have included wheel-crush incidents, crossing incidents, on-board slip-and-falls, and possibly molestation (I have been involved in 13 of those). Oddly, and a bright spot for which our industry should puff out our chests, is the infrequency of driver intoxication or drug use detected in post-accident drug-and-alcohol screenings. So rare do our drivers test positive that I am baffled by our failures to derive and use these statistics as a marketing ploy. Not only are our vehicles becoming beacons for clean air goals, but our drivers have become poster boys for clean living, abstinence and discipline. Now, if we could only get the passengers to behave!
Lines in the Sand
The continued prosperity of the motorcoach business lies in providing a unique mix of fun and safety, where seriously-trained, responsible drivers, and luxurious and roadworthy vehicles go out of their way to turn every trip into a memorable experience that every passenger would like to repeat. Unlike other modes of public transportation, motorcoach service is not merely a means. It is also an end.
We cannot place a Sergeant-at-arms or schoolmarm on every motorcoach, like we do with special education pupil transportation. But we must learn to at least control the excesses. The fact that we have obviously failed to do so, yet struggle so mightily with driver shortages and wafer-thin profits - "symptoms" of charging fares far too low for the formidable benefits we are providing - suggests that some things in our industry are sorely out of balance. If we cannot change this, then on my next motorcoach trip, I want to chase a greased pig up and down the passenger aisle of a $500,000, forty-five foot luxury motorcoach. Who said there are no rednecks in New York City?