Digital Madness

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Modern public transportation systems are increasingly being overwhelmed by digital technology, particularly in demand-responsive services like paratransit and taxi (where software performs scheduling and dispatching) and school bus services (where software often designs the routes and selects the stops). This creep of technology has replaced management personnel with a “feel for operations” with an army of computer geeks with no feel for or interest in it. Apart from such technology's counterproductive impact on efficiency (a good human scheduler can significantly outperform any scheduling software where the system has been designed intelligently, much less at all), it has had a profoundly negative effect on passenger safety, particularly in the school bus sector — where live Earthlings formerly evaluated the numerous factors that affect the safety of bus stops when selecting them. At the vehicle level, navigational systems with maps, mobile data terminals and other paraphernalia often cause drivers to remove their eyes from the roadway or mirrors, and a vehicle can change position in or out of its lane in a heartbeat.

Interestingly, while most advances in non-digital technology (e.g., improved mirror technology, reduced hood angles in Type C school buses, etc.) have enhanced safety significantly, the overwhelming of management and drivers with digital technology has undermined their contact with the physical features of “operating reality,” and particularly for drivers, has driven many not particularly computer literate from the field altogether, leading to dangerous driver shortages that understandably translate into negligent hiring and retention. This loss among dispatch personnel of the “feel” for what’s going on has also led to an explosion in passenger molestation that goes undetected despite the profusion of digital tools that, if used properly, theoretically possess the capability of actually improving system monitoring. Because of the illusion of “knowing everything” that such technology presents, few systems relying upon it bother to install sister-technologies like video cameras in the vehicles — technology that would deter the commission of passenger assault and molestation by both drivers and fellow passengers in most cases. Regardless, the passengers most vulnerable to digital madness are physically and developmentally disabled children and adults – individuals who ironically avoid crossing incidents because of their provision of door-to-door or curb-to-curb service.

Finally, new technology almost always causes problems until the industry learns how to adjust to it. Navigation devices provide a salient illustration. While designed for a voice to guide the driver, these devices also include maps depicting the route directly in front of the vehicle. Certain naïve state DMVs (e.g., California) actually permit the mounting of such devices on the windshield or dashboard — effectively encouraging drivers to shift their eyes from the windshield and mirrors (which they are supposed to scan every five to eight seconds, according to defensive driving principles) to the study of a tiny, constantly undulating map. In one recent case in which I was involved, in order to listen to the radio, the driver placed this device on his lap, and while looking at it, drove into a tree as the road in front of him curved around sharply. His unsecured gurney passenger was propelled forward, like an artillery shell, into the edge of a “captain's seat,” which split her head open. While not a typical “catastrophic” accident in the classical sense, the settlement award was astronomical.