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The Folly of Fake Facts

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

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Thankfully, mowing down pedestrians in a crosswalk is not yet commonplace. But it is also not rare. This incident scenario is most common to transit buses making left turns (see "The Danger Deterrent," NATIONAL BUS TRADER, April 2016) But it happens occasionally with almost every transportation mode. Yet the defenses almost always cited by the drivers are no match for someone with a high school diploma.

Pencils and Erasers

A driver or motorist requires some time to recognize that something bad is about to happen. Most drivers or motorists need roughly three-quarters of a second to recognize this. It then takes roughly another three-quarters of a second to move one's right foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal. Stepping on pneumatic brakes, which full-size buses, trucks and motorcoaches almost always have, adds roughly another half second.

No accident reconstruction is needed here. The skills to calculate the distance this vehicle travels in two seconds are learned in third grade (multiplication), fourth grade (long division), seventh grade (fractions) and 11th grade (driver's education). The latter curriculum teaches one about reaction time and braking distance. For a bus traveling 30 miles per hour or faster, one can read the braking distance from a simple table (Table II) in Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) #105.

A driver can reduce reaction time by "covering the brakes" - a simple safety technique for a bus traveling on a level surface or (especially) downhill. That is because the three-quarters of a second to transfer one's foot from the accelerator pedal to the brake pedal is effectively eliminated. More simply, the braking distance can be radically reduced, particularly during turning, by controlling the vehicle's acceleration. Better still, buses should come to a complete stop before even starting a left turn. This trio of simple procedures not only eliminates reaction time and minimizes braking distance, but gives the driver much more time to look per each foot of travel. And it gives the driver time to look and see before the vehicle even moves.

Fake Facts

Instead of these procedures saving lives, another trio of dangerous errors and fake facts often emerges:

  1. The vehicle operator turns at 15 to 20 mph.
  2. The vehicle comes to a stop five to 10 feet beyond the victim.
  3. The driver claims he or she never saw the pedestrian, and that he or she "came out of nowhere."

What is wrong with this picture is that this combination of things cannot happen as a matter of physics or a matter of simple arithmetic:

  1. Turning at 15 mph, during the operator's reaction time (2.0 seconds in a bus or motorcoach), the vehicle covers 44 feet. (Turning at 20 mph, these two seconds gobble up 66 feet.
  2. Then the bus has to come to a stop. Table II in FMVSS #105 does not cite braking distance for speeds below 30 mph. Yet because braking distance varies nearly as the square of the speed, braking distance from 15 mph is roughly 15 feet (roughly one-fourth of the 57 feet needed to brake from 30 mph). Braking distance from 20 mph is roughly 25 feet (four-ninths of 57 feet).
  3. When a driver or motorist mows down a pedestrian, he or she almost always claims, "I never saw him [or her]. He [or she] came out of nowhere."
  4. Yet the vehicle often stops five to 10 feet beyond the victim struck down.

This claim is most curious since, from steps #1 and #2, the vehicle must travel 59 feet (at 15 mph) to come to a stop from 15 mph. And it must travel 91 feet to come to a stop from 20 mph. So how could it possibly come to a stop five or 10 feet beyond a pedestrian that the driver did not see? The answer is simple. It cannot. The driver who claims this is lying.

The Whole Truth and Nothing But

What has always happened in these incidents is that the driver saw the victim early in the turn, but was simply traveling too fast to stop. I have yet to learn of a driver admitting this. And with some opportunity to "rehabilitate" them before the drivers' depositions, their marginal attorneys never seem to understand the principles either. So the drivers continue to claim, "I never saw him" and "he came out of nowhere."

Somewhere along the line, bus drivers, supervisors and attorneys need to recall their high school learning. They need know basic arithmetic. And they need to apply it to collisions. If those who create bus schedules knew and cared about these things, such incidents would be rare. Otherwise, a police photo showing the bus having come to a stop five or 10 feet beyond the victim's body speaks for itself.

Cowboys and Stopwatches

As a child, cowboys were my heroes. I still have great respect for them. And I thrill at the things they can do on horseback. But they must not drive buses and motorcoaches the same way. Generally they do not. When they do, it is often because their schedules are too tight, and they are faced with the risk of driving safely or jeopardizing their employment - a garden variety safety compromise. (See the last 12 articles in NATIONAL BUS TRADER; see Rolling turns" are only one of many safety compromises. But this safety compromise usually translates into fatalities or serious mutilation. And when the experts assisting the victims' attorneys are savvy, and these attorneys can hold still, this compromise can bring down more than just a driver.

Soon to come will be a short series just about tight schedules. We will examine them in motorcoach operations, schoolbus operations and other scheduled service operations, as well as in transit operations, non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) service and complementary paratransit service, where tight schedules are even more common and more problematic. More interestingly, from mode to mode, tight schedules are common and problematic for different reasons.

A public transportation provider can save a lot of lives and miss a lot of law suits by having its drivers come to a complete stop before making a left turn. The economic and institutional dynamics of our operating environments and duty cycles can interfere with the proper performance of this procedure. It should not. Drivers and the layer of management and policy-making officials of them who fail to follow this procedure pay a stiff price for this failure, as do its victims.

In our nation's unrelenting jobs elimination program, the old song "Mommas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" is packed with wisdom. Frankly, I long for the days when babies could do this. But when they do, I just do not want them driving buses like they are herding or rustling cattle. If our best drivers wish to show off their skills, they can drive in those fabulous bus rodeos with which we are all familiar. Just keep the pedestrians off the range.

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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