Management & Operations

Staying Focused on Passenger Transportation Safety

Posted on January 28, 2008 by Jack Burkert

When looking at the passenger transportation industry it is clear that it has compiled a remarkable safety record. Yet, the challenge to improve that record is perhaps more present today than at any other time in the past. In today’s technology-driven climate, where an operator’s U.S. Department of Transportation-generated safety record is available to the public and consumer opinions about quality, service and safety are posted online, it is no wonder that managing and controlling safety is a critical element in any passenger fleet’s business plan.

The current push for improvement first gathered momentum when, in 1999, then Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater set an ambitious goal for commercial vehicle safety. He called for “reducing fatalities resulting from large truck and bus crashes by 50 percent in the next ten years.” Slater’s goal might have ended up just being political rhetoric destined for the dustbin, but circumstances keep safety and the need to improve in the forefront of public awareness. Each time there is a serious mishap, CNN and other news agencies report bus crash details, helicopters transmit pictures of devastation and the public responds with cries for improved safety.

Passenger transportation safety is not as quick or easy to affect as one might assume. Operationally, bus and coach companies produce, on a daily basis, a random blending of driver, vehicle, traffic, passenger and schedule variables. And while traditional fleet safety practices can have a positive effect, it is clear that operators must adopt new and improved practices to keep pace with public and regulatory demands. The challenges are many and the controls have historically been few, but today we are lucky to have more and better safety management tools than at any time in the past.

What safety tools are appropriate and available? Today, in order to impact bus and coach safety dramatically, we need to apply traditional approaches and build on them with the application of new techniques.

Driver testing

Safety is first and foremost in the hands of the driver. He or she is the critical element in any safety system. Given the potential for good or harm, the high cost involved with recruiting or training, and the potential benefit of sorting out poorly qualified applicants in advance of hire, applicant testing should be on every company’s action priority list.

Testing in a traditional sense means road testing, placing the applicant behind the wheel and doing some basic maneuvering before entering into a bona fide check ride. DOT regulations equate possession of a CDL to a road test, but making that assumption is a poor choice. Your vehicle, your customer, your trip; it all ought to be done your way and the only way to assure applicant skills is to test, covering miles of highway that include every driving, roadway and traffic situation the driver is likely to encounter.

In addition to driver testing, an individual being considered for employment can also be evaluated through test programs in areas such as honesty, aptitude and personality. Today, there are newer test programs to objectively evaluate an applicant for their ability to understand the driving job, the tasks involved in operating safely, and how well an individual understands and manages acceptance of risk. These test programs might even be considered essential in today’s world of lawsuits generated through “negligent entrustment.” A bit of Internet research on driver risk acceptance or bus driver aptitude will point you in the right direction for resources.

Applicant testing wouldn’t be complete without a mention of some essentials. Whether required by regulation or not, physical condition and substance abuse testing are valuable tools for every operating company. Don’t neglect the benefits of knowing the applicant or even that the currently employed driver is fully fit and capable to handle critical safety responsibilities.

Performance monitoring

Employees produce the best results in the facets of their jobs where they know management places emphasis on satisfactory performance. Where management also oversees and verifies quality, employee results are almost certainly enhanced. But for the fleet, where the workforce is spread across miles of highway, safety may be emphasized, while oversight is an entirely different matter.

In years past, many hours and many gallons of fuel were consumed in the pursuit of driver oversight. Radar guns were part of the safety manager’s tools of the trade, as were reports from mystery riders onboard who detailed their findings on every aspect of the service provided. Passenger comment cards got added to the mix some years ago where efforts to solicit feedback were made. This mix of strategies gave a broad but incomplete picture, often including comments that did not accurately reflect all or sometimes any aspects of safety performance.

The fleet manager interested in meeting today’s safety challenges has tools undreamed of twenty years ago. Without attempting to detail every such system, two stand out as having demonstrated short- and long-term benefits to fleet operations. We begin with the most fundamental need: where is your vehicle and how fast is it going? These answers come back to us, in real time, through GPS tracking systems. Whether vehicle or cell phone-based, modern GPS systems are reliable and cost effective. Most critically, such systems track both location and vehicle speed, allowing oversight where before there was none. Speeding does more than create risk, it also consumes excess fuel dollars. Off-route drivers increase costs, while the irregular route roads on which they travel can easily compromise safety. Legitimate speeds become the rule, and drivers stay on track and on schedule, with GPS monitoring. Where a fleet is able to manage speed, location and operation, it also changes the safety dynamic.

Other systems finding favor use front- (and often interior) monitoring cameras with integral “event” recorders ready to capture crash events, hard stops, sudden motions, and with the press of a button, situations that the driver senses should be stored for future use. The practical effect of these systems, over and above litigation defense, is that driver performance is greatly improved. One insurer working with clients on installation and system use reports major decreases in “events”; typical fleets move from several events being recorded every week to just a few per month. Realistically, such improved driver performance over the short term can only be the result of extended following distance, heightened awareness and more modest speeds.

Technology assists driver

Of the many things that can create an accident event, it is the human factor that is the root of most problems and most in need of intervention, support and assistance through technology. The devices available in the marketplace today are many, and a vast number of them are well on their way to being real winners in the battle against bus and coach crashes. Without trying to discuss every such system, here are a few that seem to be beneficial.

Stability systems: Small driver errors can produce devastating rollover events, the most tragic and expensive of all types of passenger transportation crashes. New stability systems monitor both vehicle direction and driver steering input to determine when control is lost. The computerized system then reacts faster and more decisively than the driver, correcting the bus or coach path through the application of specific vehicle brakes. Left-side brake activation corrects veering to the right, with the opposite true when the vehicle is headed left but the driver steering input shows a desire to go to the right. These systems are now available, and while promises of avoiding every disaster cannot be made, stability systems offer enormous promise.

Anti-collision systems: National Highway Transportation Administration data points to rear-end collisions as being events where trailing drivers miss visual cues that vehicles ahead have slowed or stopped. Insurance company data consistently points to this type of accident as being the most costly of crash events overall, with frequency and severity combining to make this the number one target for safety intervention. Anti-collision systems, around in one form or another for more than 20 years, have been refined to the point where they have become reliable tools to warn, or even slow, the vehicle as its closes in on traffic ahead. Using radar technology, the driver gains an electronic partner in the vehicle, one who is said to never miss closing distance situations with crash potential.

Lane departure management: Originally envisioned as an anti-fatigue device, the benefits in test fleets of lane departure warning systems have surprisingly been seen most often in a reduction of sideswipe events. Lane departure systems track the vehicle as it travels between lanes, with drifting out of the selected lane countered with an audible alarm. Lane changes do not set off the warning if the change is accompanied by the use of a turn signal. Thus, if the driver is falling asleep or is drifting to the left or right through loss of attention, an in-vehicle advisor alerts them to the undesired vehicle motion.

The safety challenge in 2007 for the bus and coach industry is the same one that has been around since the beginning of motor transportation: moving people safely. The safety challenges of drivers, highways and vehicles continue, but with the advantages of technology partnered with traditional and common sense approaches to managing a fleet, safe operations are one step closer for everybody.

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