As with most things, the ADA requirement to make all new motorcoaches purchased after 2001 wheelchair-accessible, and the 2015 ruling to install three-point occupant restraint systems, introduced an entirely new spectrum of safety, liability and social concerns to the motorcoach industry. But a couple of responses to these requirements, particularly by one OEM and one supplier, have opened up a whole new set of opportunities for savvy motorcoach operators.
For reasons noted below, few motorcoach operators currently transport many (or any) wheelchair users, just as most wheelchair users are reluctant to travel by motorcoach. With conventional coaches and traditional securement equipment, this is actually understandable, particularly in the commuter/express sector, and often in the intercity/scheduled service sector, where ridership by wheelchair users is rarely known in advance. Coming upon a wheelchair user, a reasonable and prudent driver should, at minimum:
- Either flip up seats or, with quick-change track seating, squeeze several rows together.
- Extract those ambulatory passengers seated in the now-flipped-up seats and direct or assist them to other seats in the coach.
- Deploy and lower the lift platform in the rear door.
- Load the wheelchair user onto the lift platform.
- Raise the platform, and then pull the wheelchair onto the floor or direct its occupant to the securement area (usually forward of the lift area) and await his or her arrival.
- Retrieve securement hardware (usually including the male and female sections of a lap belt) from a pouch or other storage location.
- Secure the chair to the floor tracks (or plates or discs) at all four wheel positions.
- Adjust the position of the chair in the securement area, tighten the securement and tug on some straps to ensure a minimum of slack.
- Affix the three-point occupant restraint system to the passenger.
Whew! One can understand how, holding up the travel of a coach full of other passengers, a wheelchair user might feel stigmatized by this experience. And unless a wheelchair user is boarded at the start of a trip and alighted at the end of it, even those riding charter and tour services will experience this activity, even while the operator may know of the wheelchair user's trip in advance, and the passenger seats to be pushed forward (on quick-track seating systems) or flipped up can be repositioned before the run begins.
Passenger Securement Conundrums
Apart from the requirement for drivers and motorists to use their seatbelts (and in most states, automobile passengers), there is no Federal or state requirement for usage of any seatbelt system in a large vehicle in any public transportation mode with the exception of schoolbuses of any size in New Jersey. (And that State requires only lapbelts.) However, one may still face shenanigans about seatbelt usage in a lawsuit.
Seatbelt usage can be problematic in motorcoach service, particularly during night and owl runs in the intercity/scheduled service, tour and charter sectors. Many or most passengers trying to sleep remove their seatbelts. It is unrealistic to expect drivers to constantly awaken them and reinforce their seat belt usage, irrespective of what our legal system may deem "reasonable and prudent." But the installation requirement is unmistakable. NHTSA promulgated the installation of three-point seatbelts on motorcoaches in 2015.
There was little political blowback to NHTSA's ruling since most motorcoach companies had begun to install three-point occupant restraint systems on their coaches beginning in 2009 - largely because of a lawsuit involving a catastrophic motorcoach incident that was settled in 2008. Because of that lawsuit, deploying a 2008 or older coach without three-point seatbelts posed a risk. This risk increased significantly in 2009 and beyond, when coaches more often began to contain them. Coaches produced in 2015 or beyond without three-point seatbelt systems are at even greater risk. Compared to the legal mud bath that installation involves, the usage issue is a fine mist. But the rainy season is coming.
Rolling Chairs on Moving Floors
It may be hard to find a more ridiculous idea than not securing a rolling chair on a moving floor. Yet this omission not only happens, but it is common. Particularly for drivers who properly stow securement hardware, it can take several minutes to secure a single, garden-variety wheelchair at all four wheel positions, much less adjusting, tightening and testing it properly, affixing the three-point lap/shoulder restraints, and the other steps cited above. So even before one explores the loading and seat-squeezing/seat-flipping issues, securing a wheelchair will take time. On many modes, wheelchairs combine with tight schedules to produce safety compromises (see safetycompromises.com). And securing a wheelchair can consume more running time than any other single safety compromise.
To our benefit, motorcoach riders on tour and charter services usually pre-schedule their rides - often days, weeks or months in advance. This is less true of intercity/scheduled service passengers. It is far less true in commuter/express service, even while most passengers may travel on the same routes regularly. In the tour and charter sectors, operators can prepare for wheelchair users in advance, even modifying schedules if necessary. Still, wheelchair and passenger securement takes time.
A Brighter Present
Wheelchair securement manufacturer Q-Straint is well aware of the longest segment of conventional wheelchair loading and securement time. So using Q-Straint's latest evolution of equipment - the QRT Max system - a driver with a spate of experience can now secure a wheelchair, using only a single hand, in seconds. But on existing vehicles with older securement hardware, the half-circle, disc-shaped floor fittings must be retrofitted. This does not come cheap. One needs nearly $500 to by a mere quartet of securement straps with retractors. But saving several minutes on each successive securement can help amortize these and other costs. Of course, there is nothing to amortize if the QRT Max system is installed on a new vehicle.
Along with Q-Straint, coach manufacturer MCI is also well aware of the loading time associated with conventional vehicles. So, with the MCI D45 CRT LE, loading takes practically no time. The wheelchair rolls or powers (or is rolled or powered) up a slightly-inclined ramp, right into a vestibule where the chair is quickly secured barely a foot above ground level.
Combining these two technologies (the MCI D43 CRT LE already uses the CRT Max system), one would think that safety compromises would vanish. There is little time to be saved by not securing a wheelchair. And passenger securement into the chair takes little time even in conventional motorcoaches (or any other type of vehicle). So the most typical cause underlying the failure to secure a wheelchair will diminish almost exponentially with the use of these two breakthrough technologies. Of course, that will not automatically translate into every driver using this equipment, and using it properly. It would merely make sense to.
Passengers and Profits
Wheelchair ridership in most sectors of motorcoach service is likely to increase as innovations like the MCI D45 QRT LE move MCI's vision and design process forward, and as Q-Straint's QRT Max system begins to replace traditional securement hardware in motorcoaches and other types of accessible vehicles.
For a preview of wheelchair user ridership levels, one need only look at fixed route transit. More interesting, unlike schoolbus and fixed route transit service, there are no counterparts to demand-responsive special education or complementary paratransit service in the motorcoach sector. Ridership by disabled passengers is all ours. Particularly if all or most motorcoaches are not filled to capacity, by failing to transportation wheelchair users (or making their transportation difficult), we are not only doing a disservice to members of our community. We are leaving money on the table.
The future of motorcoach service is obviously not solely dependent on wheelchair users. But our population is aging rapidly. So part of our future is in wheelchair users. At least half of all current motorcoach riders are elderly. And the older one gets, the more likely he or she is to morph into a walker user or wheelchair user. The ridership and profit opportunities are out there.
Along with the profits also come pitfalls. As the subpopulation of wheelchair users grows in numbers, so too will their lawyers. In likely more than the 100 wheelchair tipover cases on which I have served as an expert, only two went to trial. Representing the plaintiffs, I helped both win $2M or more. The others settled handsomely. Frankly, there is little hope of defending an agency or company in a lawsuit involving a wheelchair tipover (see wheelchairtipovers.com). However, in none of these cases did I encounter both a ramp-equipped vehicle and a set of quick-connect Q-Straint disc fittings. Irrespective of the technology, the failure to secure a wheelchair is not excusable (see safetycompromises.com). But with quick loading and quick securement technology, this compromise should not be tempting.
Embracing the Future
More members of my high school class of '65 fed Secretary McNamara's war machine than did any other class since. They received no parades. Many who managed to return lost their legs, among many other things. They cannot travel on airplanes unless they can transfer out of their wheelchairs. On trains, there are no securement fittings to prevent their chairs from sliding down the aisle should the train slam on its brakes, collide or derail. On commuter rail service, wheelchair users cannot access the restrooms. They can rarely take taxis, because those too are rarely accessible. They risk their lives riding fixed route transit because their chairs are so rarely secured. Yet as new technologies are emerging to make wheelchair transportation easy and profitable, the way these individuals can travel is with us. Instead of whining about its subsidies, here is our chance to outperform AMTRAK.
In every culture and every society, there are times when their members must grow up. During my lifetime, we grew with Vietnam. We grew up with Reaganomics. We grew up on September 11th. We grew up as the forest fires raged and the polar caps melted. Many of us live in our phones. And we grew up with robots systematically replacing job after job and business after business. We may backslide at times, just as we sometimes move forward. But when we fail to learn from these experiences, we pay for it.
In the public transportation community, we also grew up with the Americans with Disabilities Act, just as we grew up with ABS brakes, improved fuel economy, larger vehicles and cleaner engines. Change is what we do. When we embrace change, we win. Just ask the rich. When we ignore change, we lose. Just ask the poor. In terms of walking around, just ask the old.
Robots may soon drive our vehicles. But it will take some time before they can properly load and secure a wheelchair user. So with wheelchair users regularly (or even occasionally) using our vehicles, operator jobs will not disappear. They will only change.
One direction of this change, as our population ages, is clear. We have an opportunity to embrace a change that will give us more business. And we can invite passengers onto our services who can help keep our vehicle operators employed. Beyond these goals, we can also stand for something. How about, "Leave the driving to us?"