Management & Operations

Prepared for the Worst: Securing Motorcoach Passengers

Posted on September 23, 2008 by Jack Burkert

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Be prepared. The Boy Scout motto provides words to live by for all of us, but as some recent headlines reveal — “Bus beating being probed;” “Gruesome Manitoba bus killing suspect held;” and “Bus bomb kills 8, injures 50” — it is especially important if you are a motorcoach company manager or owner.

But being prepared is not easy in a world full of threats. The questions abound: How can you stop, prevent or deter attacks? What steps could be taken to minimize trouble? What is your legal obligation to protect your passengers?

The coach industry and every company operating as part of the national transportation network must develop countermeasures to possible life-threatening situations. Many companies have already done so. The question is, what have you done? Is it enough? What might be done next? Where do private sector obligations meet governmental responsibilities?

What is your duty?
A passenger transportation provider has a significant obligation to protect its riders. The specific nature of that obligation can and will vary. First, by the laws of the jurisdiction involved (each state has established its own set of standards.) Second, by the nature of the trip; charter trips often have a different legal definition than the more open obligations of line or scheduled service. Despite these factors, the bus company must act to prevent accidents and protect its passengers from injury.

The company’s obligation derives from the long-standing duties of a common carrier, where many circumstances make mandatory the implementation of prevention programs. As always, the law and the duties it imparts vary and are subject to interpretation. According to the wording of one court ruling:

“transport…includes the obligation on the part of the carrier to guarantee to its passenger respectful and courteous treatment, and to protect them, not only from violence and insults from strangers, but also from violence and insult from the carrier’s own agents.*”

Legal viewpoint
Pennsylvania-based trial lawyer Gerald McHugh ( has years of experience handling negligence litigation, which has placed him in a unique position of understanding that every dispute has two sides. McHugh offers the following thoughts on the subject:

“As a common carrier, a bus line would owe its passengers the highest duty of care in most states. That would include a duty to identify and guard against foreseeable risks. However, stating the legal duty is one thing; describing it in the real world is much more difficult…

As a lawyer for plaintiffs, my assessment of…a passenger attack incident would hinge on two critical factors. First, what had been the carrier’s previous experience with incidents of criminal assault, and in particular, had it identified any particular routes that were plagued with incidents? If so, some program of deterrence, such as periodic plain clothed security guard on a bus, or a video system, accompanied by notices to passengers of such surveillance, would seem to be practical options in an effort to inhibit criminal activity.

The second critical area is the carrier’s response system when an incident has occurred. Were drivers able to make instant contact with local police along the route? Did drivers have a protocol to follow in the event of an incident?”

From an expert litigator, these words provide a clear pathway to passenger carrier loss and litigation prevention.

Nature of threat
Criminal activity, which may occur on board a bus or coach, is often described as simply reflecting criminal behavior in our culture. To some extent, this is certainly true. But now, in 2008, the nature of crime that can and does impact the bus and coach industry has taken on a new dimension. What is being discussed today is terrorism.

Terrorism has in the past been defined as “government by intimidation.” A United Nations panel determined that terrorism is an act “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” And sadly, those acts of terrorism have targeted buses. Worldwide, buses are a key target, by default, as other targets become harder to strike.

But terrorism, at its simplest level defined as malevolent criminal action, is not the only threat. Crimes against persons and property impact the bus industry as well. One informal study by an expert in loss prevention showed serious bus passenger incidents occurring once every three weeks; other data released in past litigation matters showed that unfit passengers were expelled from (or denied transportation on) bus travel almost daily.

No service provider in the bus and coach industry is immune from the threat of crime and violence. Being prepared means understanding that theft, abuse and attack are the minor league equivalents to the big league of hijackings, murder and potential terrorist incidents. Each needs a plan to address risk and a plan for response.


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