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Buses and Motorcoaches: Seating and Securement

As Originally published by National Bus Trader, December 2004.

By: Ned Einstein
Tel: 212-766-1121
Email Mr. Einstein

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Comparing their relative safety to that of other vehicles, a number of motorcoach features come immediately to mind: Mass, monocoque construction pneumatic suspension, and fully-padded, forward-facing seats. Yet incidents like these still occur:

  • Traveling in freeway traffic, a motorcoach braked and swerved to avoid a collision, and a passenger flew into the dashboard and stepwell.
  • Another passenger had just boarded when her motorcoach pulled out into traffic from an airport terminal, knocking her off her feet.

A third motorcoach emerged from a toll booth, and before it had merged into traffic, a passenger was knocked down while walking toward the restroom.

Lies and Consequences

In the law suits which ensured, the operators' defenses revolved around basic themes: All these passengers were elderly, and all were standing when the incidents occurred. But these defenses were of little help:

  • Roughly half of all motorcoach passengers are elderly: Their falling down on a moving coach is hardly unforeseeable.
  • As for the inference they should not have been standing (none of these coaches were overcrowded), the vehicles contained lavatories - certainly not intended for use only when the coaches were stationary.

Where or When

Clearly, walks to and from the lavatories, and other on-board movements within the passenger compartment, are not dangerous per se. If they were, both motorcoach manufacturers and operators would be liable in slip and fall accidents as a matter of law. Were this the case, few motorcoach manufacturers would even produce lavatories - and the industry would be suffer a serious marketing setback. Instead, operators may be liable as a matter of fact - as they should be when the facts support it. Thus, it is critical when and at what point on the trip passengers are walking or standing on the coach.

As a safety matter, motorcoach passengers are at a serious disadvantage compared to their drivers, who have complete control over travel variables. In contrast, the passengers rarely know: (a) where the coach is; (b) how fast it is traveling; (c) what it will encounter in the next minute or so (and when one's restroom needs have been fulfilled), or (d) how the vehicle will turn, brake, decelerate and accelerate when it reaches or passes these points. As their attorneys will easily argue, few motorcoach passengers in general - much less their clients - would likely think, "Look: a tollbooth! Time to freshen up!"

As to the claim that drivers are facing forward, and must devote their primary attention to events occurring outside the coach, observant attorneys (or their forensic experts) will be quick to point out that every motorcoach has an interior rear view mirror, and most which contain lavatories also have microphones, PA systems and interior speakers - auditory devices which interfere little with the manual or visual aspects of driving.

Safe and Smooth

While most motorcoach drivers understand the general concepts of inertial and centrifugal force, they are not always attuned to their manifestations in acceleration, deceleration, turning, merging, weaving and braking. Further, these forces may be masked by, or forgotten in, the intermittent monotony, stress and fatigue of driving - not to mention the distraction of having to keep the vehicle on course and stable during these transitions. When questioned about these forces, some drivers' misconceptions are surprising:

  • One driver tailgating at high speed relied on his Jake Brake to slow the coach down (the incident occurred, ironically, in a city where these devices were illegal).
  • Another driver claimed he never had to merge when pulling away from a toll booth.
  • A third driver felt no need to monitor compliance - through the interior, rear-view mirror - of his suggestion that a passenger return to his seat.

Inertial and centrifugal forces can be dramatic. This writer has been involved in dozens of lawsuits where either standees or unsecured wheelchairs and occupants were tossed about the passenger compartment. In one transit case, three passengers - including one seated on the opposite side of the aisle - were thrown through a closed, rear door before the bus completed its left turn from a dead stop. Slip-and-fall victims are commonly elderly and/or obese. But one young, able-bodied standee lost a front tooth after the coach's acceleration knocked her off her feet.

Other indicators of inertial and centrifugal force are more subtle. One example is the secondary acceleration and deceleration as a transmission passes through its shift points. Another is the near-impossibility of completely smooth braking - although many good drivers regularly come close.

A motorcoach driver - cocooned in a contoured, ergonomic driver's seat, secured by a three-point occupant restraint system, holding onto a steering wheel, knowing what he or she is doing and intends to do, and afforded visibility through a panoramic, oversized one-piece windshield sandwiched between two large, exterior, rear-view mirrors - may take these forces for granted. Occasionally, their passengers, operating companies and insurance underwriters pay for it.

Knowing and Sharing

My high school basketball coach hounded us about the "Three H's of Defense:" Hustle, Holler and Help. He also emphasized how, working in harmony, these factors were greater than the sum of their parts. These are useful principles for motorcoach driving. Drivers must not only be aware of conditions which may affect the passengers, but must communicate them. Among the factors worth sharing are those route segments or coach movements where it is unsafe to stand or walk in the aisle.

Since most motorcoach operators invest in "sound systems," and are even forced to pay royalties on the music they play, a few songs and their messages might serve as useful reminders to drivers and their passengers. One which comes to mind is "Where or When." Another is "Smooth Operator." My top pick is "You've Got a Friend." Of course, one must keep the passengers from dancing.

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 600 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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