Wheelchair and Passenger Securement
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Related to inertial and centrifugal forces, and induced by either insufficient time on the schedule with even none of these individuals on board, or by falling behind schedule, wheelchair tipovers may be the most common public transportation incident. Unlike wheelchair users using other modes, transit drivers never know when they are about to encounter one, and when they do, their smidgeon of “recovery” or “layover” time (if they have any at all, much less under ideal circumstances) is about to vanish, and they are doomed with hours of driving during which they must catch their breath only at long traffic lights, have remote opportunity for a meal, and either run off-line or miss a run (for which they can be penalized) or practice for the Guinness Book of Records in the area of bowel control. So it is not hard to understand why drivers do not secure wheelchairs, much less spend even more time securing them into their chairs. Usually taught nothing about inertial or centrifugal forces, most drivers are not cognizant of the risks involved, and many whose recovery time is obliterated every time one of these individuals boards is likely to dislike them (to put it mildly), and on occasion, refused to secure their wheelchair as a form of punishment. It should not come as a surprise, that many of these facts emerge rather easily from depositions (especially when plaintiff’s counsel’s expert has had a chance to ride the bus during ideal circumstances to find the schedule too tight even without the wheelchair occupant). Thus wheelchair cases tend to settle for large amounts, or on those few occasions when I’ve accompanied two of them to court, for more than $2M each.
While most modes transporting wheelchair users have requirements for the securement of their chairs, requirements for passenger securement generally address only the installation of these devices, not their usage. Just the same, 90 percent of drivers either offer passenger securement of wheelchairs, encourage, or simply perform it unless and until the passenger objects to it. In contrast, the drivers of some modes that do not transport wheelchairs — like taxicabs — not only completely ignore passenger securement altogether, but zoom away before an enlightened passenger can even secure him- or herself.
A surprisingly large number of wheelchair securement-related incidents stem from poor, mismatched or occasionally ludicrously-inadequate equipment, as well as some hardware that is difficult for drivers to reach. It is almost astonishing to find such quantities of the latter on major transit systems (particularly on older buses that should have been retrofitted to eliminate these hazards) — devices such as two-position “C-clamps” (the ADA requires that wheelchairs be secured at four positions) that do not even accommodate motorized wheelchairs at all. In rare cases — like the positioning of side-facing wheelchairs (an ADA violation) — misusage compromises otherwise sound equipment. Regardless, in most cases, drivers do not secure wheelchairs at all rather than partially-secure them with faulty equipment — although equipment, good or bad, is not the primary reason for this failure, as noted above.
In a class action suit in which I served for the plaintiffs around the turn of the century (Beauchamp v. LACMTA), drivers were skipping wheelchair users at the stops. I identified four remedies for this problem, and insisted that unless all four were implemented, the problem would and could be solved. Seeking a victory more zealously than a solution, the ACLU agreed to a Consent Decree that omitted the important point that either more buses had to be added, or that many or most of the system’s routes had to be restructured — bad timing alongside the Bus Riders Union v. LACMTA case that argued for, and whose judge ordered the defendant to purchase, 3200 additional buses. 10 years later, wheelchair users on that system are still tipping over, and these again-broken eggshells throughout the country are hemorrhaging.
In our current economy, which is almost certain to get worse, I cannot see any improvements in this situation. Plaintiffs’ attorneys will continue having field days with such cases, and I will continue arguing for injunctive relief to add more vehicles — which plaintiff’s counsel will almost always remove from the table in return for a dramatic escalation of monetary damages.
Finally, wheelchair and passenger securement devices suffer disproportionately, compared to other interior elements, from usage (e.g., securement tracks get tamped down by wheelchairs constantly rolling over them), misusage, careless replacement and vandalism. As a consequence, many vehicles are missing components, they are often mismatched and don’t fit together, or they are broken.