Safety & Liability: The Insensitive Edge – The Technology to Avoid Boarding Accidents

There are two interesting devices or configurations in buses and motorcoaches with pneumatic brakes and suspensions systems that many passengers assume are installed. They rely upon these to compensate for drivers’ errors, when they occasionally occur. I am speaking of both a “sensitive edge” and an “interlock”:

•A “sensitive edge” involves a sensor installed inside the rubber edges of a bus or train door such that when either or both edges come in contact with an object – like a passenger’s arm, wrist or foot – they pop open, releasing the passenger so that he or she is not dragged down the street, falling down or dropped out of the bus, and likely crushed by its curb-side rear tires.

•An interlock is more a “configuration” than a device (although a few small, minor components are needed). In simple terms, the interlock prevents the bus from moving when its doors are open, and when in motion, stops the bus (by either triggering the service brakes and/or cutting off the supple of fuel to the bus’ engine, which in response, shudders the bus to a stop).

Too Much Responsibility and Too Much Credit

Because it is difficult for transit drivers to view passengers in the rear stepwell, especially with a lot of standees on board, they are often provided with a tiny (five to six-inch-in-diameter “flat” mirror mounted in the upper right-front corner of the driver compartment. This, in turn, produces a view of the image captured by a larger, convex mirror positioned across from and slightly behind the rear stepwell. Of course, the best driver with sniper-quality vision can only see a postage-stamp size and quality image captured by the larger rear stepwell mirror (often 12 to 15 inches in diameter) by look- ing at it through the tiny, circular flat one in the upper front header.

In contrast, some officials preparing vehicle specifications omit both features on the front door since, after all, the driver is seated right next to the door, and can simply look down the stepwell and through the glass in the door to make sure he or she does not close the door on a passenger or his or her limbs. So there would seem to be less need for either device in the front door. But this thinking is surprising naïve and surprisingly dangerous – particularly where schedules are unrealistically tight. Drivers are known to employ their typical “bag of tricks” in the hope of reducing their route’s running time to a point where they can at least catch their breath. An obvious goal is to keep the bus from falling increasingly behind schedule and creating serious risks to their passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists and fellow motorists from the fatigue and stress of a full shift without a moment to rest.

Driving a 38,000 pound bus filled to capacity, with scores of stops, without any relief, is not only a daunting task. It is, frankly, exhausting. Witness:

• Boarding a transit bus, running seven minutes behind schedule at the route’s mid- point, a healthy, able-bodied 36-year old woman was the last to board. She reached into the stepwell to grab the handrail, and while getting her bus pass out before even setting foot on the bottom step of the front door, the driver closed the bus’ dual-panel, pantographic door on her arm. He began to accelerate from the stop – dragging the passenger about 10 feet, and only upon hearing interior passenger’s screams did he slam on his brakes. In the mean time, the passenger wrenched out her arm, fell to her knees, and her legs and other body parts were severely injured, curiously, by the curb-side front tire of the bus. Upon my inspection of the bus, I had the door closed on the bus’ four-inch-in-diameter fire extinguisher (see photograph) and found that the sensitive edge was either not operable or not even present.

• Another system’s transit bus was driven by a driver who chose (unilaterally) to operate two minutes behind schedule (thus not a tight schedule). But, on the evening of the incident, the driver had a friend of his riding the entire route’s empty bus forward of the white line, effectively impeding the driver’s view of the stepwell and front door glass. At the soon-to-be victim’s pickup stop, this driver did not see this passenger’s full arm inserted into the bus. He closed the door on her right elbow and forced her to run alongside the bus while it accelerated until she could not longer keep up with it. The victim was running, scissor-stepping sideward with her right hand stuck in the door and her right arm across her chest, while she pounded on the bus and repeatedly screamed “Please stop the bus.”

When the driver became aware of her running alongside the bus, instead of immediately slamming on this brakes (his only standee was his friend riding forward of the white line) the driver yelled at the plaintiff to “let go of the bus,” and depressed his brakes merely “harder than normal.” Eventually the plaintiff, unable to keep up with the acceleration of the bus, fell down, pulling her hand out, and her legs were crushed by the curb-side rear tires of the bus. The driver’s tall tale was so ridiculous that to make it even possible, he would have had to pull out with his front door open – suggesting his front door also did not contain an interlock.

Neither of these drivers either cleared their mirrors before the pull-out or did not bother to even look down the stepwell and through the glass in the door panels. Doing this would or should have enabled them to see a passenger’s entire arm inside the stepwell, much less them running alongside the bus. So outrageous and glaringly incompetent was the latter system’s Maintenance Manager that he testified that sensitive edges were not available for transit bus front doors, and that if they were, he might “consider” installing them.

In telephone calls I made to a major door manufacturer and two major transit bus manufacturers, every engineer or marketing representative with whom I spoke told me that they were available, and while not every OEM still ordered them, many selected them as options, or included them in the specifications within their Request For Proposals. One OEM’s marketing representative told me that no bus ever leaves its plant without a sensitive edge in the front door (i.e., it must be a standard feature in that manufacturer’s buses).

Curiously, in the second case noted, the driver was not even running behind schedule, while in the first incident the driver was hopeless and always behind schedule during the evening peak period. Otherwise, bus schedules being notoriously too tight, particularly in large cities, about one percent of the lawsuits I engage in, nationally, have involved this scenario. In one of our largest cities, closing doors on passengers boarding or alighting comprised roughly half of the 32 lawsuits I have engaged in against this transit agency.

Back in the Day Versus Modern America

I paid less attention to this problem at the start of my career, when we had a reasonable tax base and before the unfunded mandate of the ADA left transit agencies (like many industries) starving for funds. Yet, I vaguely seem to recall both the front doors of a bus containing this safety feature – or if I was wrong about this, it certainly did not emerge as an issue. Yet now, a sensitive edge in the front door has simply defaulted to an option, or is identified in the specifications on which the manufacturers bid.

Trade-Offs and Sell-Outs

Cost is always a factor in our highly-subsidized transit industry. As a transit lover and constant advocate for significantly greater funding (for most things), I sometimes sympathize with the gradual elimination of components and amenities – although there is no end to transit buses and motorcoaches installing “comfort features” like wi-fi, electrical outlets, and with motorcoaches, video systems, individual airport-style A/C controls and other costly features. But given the tight schedules and desperation of drivers to create a few precious moments of recovery time, they will close doors on passengers. My involvement in nearly 20 lawsuits involving this theme have certainly documented this – and many of these closings involved front doors.

In my opinion, the inclusion of these two safety features on a transit vehicle’s front door, or even on a motorcoach door, are an absolute necessity. Although I note that coach drivers rarely close doors on boarding and alighting passengers since at least tour and charter drivers commonly position them- selves at the bottom of the stepwell to assist or “spot” boarding and/or alighting passengers. The omission of a sensitive edge and an interlock in the front doors is not a “reasonable and prudent” cost- cutting measure consistent with passenger safety for a “common carrier,” charged as a matter of law to provide service according to the highest standard and duty of care. Instead, they represent negligent bus specification, and naïve or indifferent transportation policies and decision-making. When the expert witness of a badly-mutilated passenger caught in a bus door explains this to a jury, the defendant (or its insurance carrier) is usually in quicksand up to its neck.

If your bus or coach has some costly and fancy features yet no sensitive edge in, or interlock configured for, its front door, you will not be able to claim your operation puts safety first when an incident like those described above occurs. Over and over and over again in 13 years of monthly installments in NATIONAL BUS TRADER, I have exclaimed, “Safety Sells” – if one bothers to publicize it, and focus on it instead of “customer service” comfort and frills. But the failure to install important safety features, even in today’s transit systems’ challenging financial environment and uber-competitive motorcoach market, sells this failure convincingly to a jury.

While it may be cheaper to pay out the occasional damage award or settlement than to equip every bus and motorcoach’s front door with these two pieces of equipment, their absence does not encourage people to ride, and undercuts our ability, as a critical public service, to encourage and increase our ridership base – an important need for both our industry and our country.

The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NATIONAL BUS TRADER, Inc. or its staff and management.

Publications: National Bus Trader.