For many passengers, the 14-inch drop from the bottom step of a high-floor transit bus or motorcoach is challenging:
- In transit service, drivers do not assist or even spot boarding or alighting passengers
- While motorcoach drivers typically assist or spot boarding or alighting passengers at the front door, the drivers of motorcoaches deployed in commuter/express service (provided by transit agencies or companies under contract to them) do not. Nor do scheduled service drivers do so consistently, especially at intermediate stops.
- Other than the bi-panel, outward-opening door one occasionally finds on a bus or (more rarely) a coach, there are no handles extending outward from the door - a configuration that makes alighting even more dangerous than it already is, compared to boarding.
For a large subset of passengers (e.g., elderly, disabled, children, any passenger carrying packages in both hands), the 14-inch drop to the ground can be challenging, and often risky. To address this risk, the pneumatic suspension systems of integral full-size buses and coaches contain a clever feature that allows drivers to release air from the right front air bag and lower the front stepwell (or the front right corner of the floor on a low-floor transit bus) between four to five inches. This capability is referred to as a "kneeling feature."
Standards and Practices
Kneeling the right-front corner of these buses is an industry standard when the vehicle's front door is not pulled adjacent to a curb. And it is customary to kneel this door position, even when adjacent to a curb, for passengers visibly disabled (including cane users), elderly or children.1 However, while an industry standard, kneeling the right front corner of a bus or motorcoach is not a regulatory requirement for any type of passenger - even though any passenger can request it, and most drivers will accommodate this request.
When a transit bus or motorcoach is pulled to the curb, the step down from the bottom step (14 inches on a motorcoach or traditional high-floor bus, and 12 inches on a low-floor, ramp-equipped bus) can be kneeled to roughly nine inches from the ground level - pretty much the same distance as the "riser height" between the steps. With the front door kneeled at a curb, the passenger's step up or down may only be about five inches. Failing to kneel the bus even when away from the curb does not usually translate into a problem for an able-bodied adult passenger - even though this failure violates the industry standard. But it generally poses a serious risk to elderly, disabled and child passengers, as well as those carrying something in each hand.
Benefits and Accountability
Because kneeling the vehicle down and up takes all of about six seconds, this maneuver should be done if there is any reasonable expectation that a passenger might need it. This is particularly true for alighting passengers, especially on buses without outward-opening dual-panel doors with handles on the inside surfaces. And on routes with ample time in their schedules for it, many drivers simply kneel the bus at every stop. And motorcoach drivers in tour, charter and many intercity/scheduled service duty cycles, who also assist or "spot" passengers boarding or alighting, generally kneel the vehicle before boarding or alighting themselves. But particularly in transit service with multiple stops, the likelihood of kneeling the bus at the front door, much less often, is acutely related to time for it in the schedule.
When incidents occur because drivers fail to kneel the bus or coach when needed, the evidence of its occurrence can be blurry: The victims claim the vehicle was not kneeled, the drivers claim it was, and no camera systems (far more common to transit than motorcoach service) capture this angle and this failure. For this reason, this particular safety compromise is common: Drivers often get away with it. But not always.
As a safety compromise, failing to kneel the bus or coach at the front door would seem to be an asterisk, since it takes roughly six seconds to lower and then raise the stepwell, combined. Yet where a driver should kneel the bus a few dozen times on a run, failing to do so can create several minutes of additional recovery time. Having a few minutes at the end of each run to merely ward off fatigue (or even a few extra minutes to do so) is an important component of a safe route and schedule. But when schedules are too tight, recovery time can only be created or extended by the driver compromising passenger safety to accomplish other goals - like keeping the vehicle on schedule and the driver having a chance to catch his or her breath. Failing to kneel the front door is clearly among these compromises.
As transit experts know, buses are not allowed to depart from a stop ahead of schedule. So when schedules are not tight, drivers typically kneel their buses generously. When schedules are tight, the opposite occurs - especially, as noted, because this compromise is sometimes hard to prove after it leads to an injury.
Specifications, Quirks and Thoughtless Choices
Interestingly, the technical specifications which most transit agencies request for kneeling features often lead to them being configured backwards. They can almost always be configured in one of two ways:
- Pulling into a stop, the bus' curb-side front corner can kneel and the doors can then open. And after the last passenger boards or alights, the doors can close and the curb-side front corner can then be raised.
- Pulling into a stop, the bus' front door can open and the curb-side front corner can then be kneeled. Then, after the last passenger boards or alights, the curb-side front corner can be raised, and then the doors can be closed.
The distinction between these two scenarios may seem trivial. It is not: The second of these scenarios occasionally transforms the stepwell into an escalator - something bus and coach passengers hardly expect. Unlike the time-savings derived from other kneeling feature failures, this quirk saves no time. So this thoughtless configuration is not even a genuine safety compromise. It is simply the result of ignorance or indifference at the bus specification level. To my knowledge, every bus manufacturer can accommodate either configuration. Or it certainly would do so to sell a vehicle (much less a fleet). Yet manufacturers are often not even asked about this configuration by their purchasers.
One curious quirk is that, on many buses (all of which now have their lifts or ramps at the front door), drivers can kneel the bus and either lower the lift platform or deploy the ramp in any order he or she chooses - sometimes by design, and sometimes because the circuitry and/or other components are poorly-maintained. Yet the instructions for most or all buses advises drivers to kneel them first, and raise them last. This sequence baffles many passengers who make assumptions about one sequence versus the other.
Curiosities and Costs
Finally, it is curious that few transit buses are configured to kneel at the rear door, since the technology for this is just as easy and low-cost as doing so at the front door. Further, many drivers do not pull their rear doors parallel to, and close to, the curb or roadway edge as they do with their front doors. This combination forces alighting bus passengers to step down into a triangular or trapezoidal space 12 inches below the floor level of a low-floor bus, or 14 inches below the bottom step of a high floor bus. Yet finding a rear-door kneeling feature is a rarity. When bus buyers do not ask for it, the reality of competitive bidding makes kneeling the bus only at the front door the default position.
Because kneeling a bus or coach takes so little time, when it can be proven that an injury resulted from the failure to do so, jurors have little sympathy when they learn that the driver created or expanded six seconds of recovery time as a result. However, if and when they learn that this omission was committed dozens of times on a particular route, the trade-off of passenger safety for this benefit becomes clear, and can become a problem for the defendant. Even while a driver may be victimized when assigned to (or selecting) a route with a tight schedule, someone at some level above the driver effectively induced this trade-off (and usually other safety compromises) deliberately. The term 'deliberate' is a land mine in a law suit. In a litigation environment where juries may be instructed that they may allocate punitive damages, the notion of 'deliberate' is a genuine risk. Those six-second safety compromises can be costly.