Let’s be proactive when it comes to bus safety

“I put it on the fax and punched in the number,” whined Margie.

She was driving us nuts. As sales assistant, she couldn’t seem to see the big picture. It never occurred to her that the goal was to actually transmit the document. She’d plop it on the machine, dial and assume that it went through. In the case of a busy signal or bad connection…. the real task wasn’t accomplished.

A young woman recently tragically died in a coach accident, ejected from a modern bus equipped with seatbelts. Assuming she hadn’t buckled up, what was she thinking? And yet, the same thing was the case with virtually everyone on the coach I rode with to an event at EXPO. None of us had fastened our belt.

The difference is that we bus people understand (or should) that most serious injuries in coach accidents occur when passengers are ejected.

It’s fun to mock legislators. Their knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy was to do “something,” and who could argue with seatbelts? Ironically, the accident that pushed seatbelts across the regulatory finish line was one where they probably would have done more harm than good.

Now loving lawmakers have mandated belts, and moved on, without seeing if they’ve actually helped. Margie would be proud.

The law decimated the value of older, non-compliant buses, added significant cost and weight to new coaches and fuzzed responsibility when a passenger doesn’t use them. Sooner or later an unrestrained miscreant is going to be launched into a buckled good guy and provide job security for generations of lawyers.

Having taken a swing at regulation (always entertaining), it might be worth stepping back and seeing what would really improve safety. I’m reluctant to go there, because it might tweak bureaucrats into doing what they do best—add even more ineffective measures (like mandating every passenger buckle in).

A wizened bus executive once said, “The safest place in a coach accident is inside the bus.” In a rollover, keeping passengers inside the cabin significantly reduces serious casualties. Eliminating sharp edges and improved glazing/latching also helped. School buses actually have twice as much padding on the back of the seats than the front.

For generations, both operators and manufacturers in the industry hid behind “containment” as the best option for motorcoach safety. It was passive, so passengers were protected without having to do anything.

There are two problems associated with containment. First, beginning in the 1950s, windows and windshields became progressively larger. That’s terrific for sightseeing, with the added benefit of reducing motion sickness, but less effective in keeping passengers in the coach during an accident.

Second, “containment” was our mantra as we resisted seatbelts for generations, and the truth is, we were probably right.

Our screw-up was failing to demonstrate, or test, containment in a visible way. If we’d done so, chances are we could have improved interior contours, glazing and latching. Actually proving this form of passive restraint was effective might have saved the industry lots of money and passengers lives.

When you don’t do science, “common sense” prevails. The same wisdom that presumed seatbelts were ideal conjured up complex equations in the Middle Ages. It took convoluted mathematical gymnastics to predict the movement of astronomical bodies while common wisdom presumed the world was flat. Calculations got simpler when scientists recognized that the earth is round.

We’re waddling toward two points.

First, seatbelts are, at best, an incomplete, expedient, solution. The jury is out on how much the new electronic safety technologies will accomplish, but there will always be accidents. Can we improve and demonstrate passive systems, in an effort to head off misguided common sense? Transit buses don’t have mandated seatbelts, so anything we develop will help them, too.

And are there other parts of our industry that could benefit from an objective re-evaluation of “common sense” practices that might not be effective? Quick, before the bureaucrats pounce, like ADA or ELD.

Let’s not be like Margie.

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