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Scary secret from a bus driver: The deadly blind spot on transit buses

January 31, 2015 by Steven M. Gursten

I was recently interviewed as a legal expert on a Channel 4 News story about the spike in bus accidents and injuries being caused by SMART buses. Channel 4 was investigating the reasons these SMART buses keep causing accidents and hitting pedestrians in metro Detroit.

To begin with, bus accidents are a lot more common than people think. There are about 63,000 bus accidents every year, according to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

When asked why there have been so many high-profile bus accidents on the news (full disclosure: I represent the couple that was catastrophically injured when a SMART bus driver fell asleep in West Bloomfield recently), I told the Channel 4 reporter Kimberly Gill that many bus accidents involve pedestrians when the bus is making a turn.

Turning a 17-ton bus is difficult,  and left turns are especially dangerous. Because of this inherent danger, many bus companies use dispatch personnel to avoid left turns. Some bus companies I’ve litigated cases against, such as Greyhound and UPS, now have computerized bus routes so drivers can avoid left turns whenever possible.

After the story ran, a reader wrote to me and told me to take a look at this article on the deadly blind spot on transit buses. The article was written by a retired bus driver of 30 years and posted on the Canadian Public Transportation Board.

Here are some highlights from the bus driver, who clearly understands the terrible risk of pedestrian accidents with buses:

“Now those of you who don’t drive buses might ask “how can you not see a group of five people crossing the street?” And even those of you who have driven buses may have their doubts. However, it’s been shown that a pedestrian or even a group of pedestrians can get “lost” from the driver’s vision when certain conditions coincide …the position, location, and size of the left mirror, the thickness of the A-pillar of the bus windshield, other transit related items that may be mounted in the area of the A-pillar (such as the radio handset and/or controls, run card holder, microphone stanchion, auxiliary gauges, etc.), the angle of the turn, the speed of the coach, how fast the pedestrians are walking, the position the driver sits in the seat …amongst other contributing conditions like weather, amount of light, kind of light, light reflections off glass surfaces insider the coach, etc., etc.

I personally can vouch for this phenomenon as I had several close calls making left turns when I drove transit buses. The problems is more dominant for those of short stature OR those who choose to sit lower in the driver’s seat. I am relatively short and in addition feel more comfortable sitting lower in the seat. Therefore, my head may be at the same height as a female driver of 5′ 2″ or less. When I first started driving buses, I wanted to sit high in the seat with a position that put my upper body more over the steering wheel. However, as the years passed, I found it much more comfortable, especially when driving for long periods of time, to sit lower in the seat. The problem of head height isn’t exclusively one limited to physically short drivers as tall people who choose to sit lower in the seat may have their head at the same height as shorter people. A co-worker of mine who was 6′ 8″ put the seat in its lowest position and as far back as it would go and he appeared to have almost the same head height sitting in the driver’s seat as that of a much shorter driver.”

This bus driver suggested a two-pronged solution to help gain better visibility and prevent bus accidents with pedestrians:

1. “Using a physically smaller left mirror and mounting it in a position that is either top-mounted or is mounted far lower in its position where the driver has to glance either slightly upward or slightly downward in order to view the mirror (see examples of the positions below).”

bus mirror angles

2. “Ordering new buses from manufacturers that endeavor to narrow the windshield A-pillar as much as feasibly possible.”

My thanks to this reader for his e-mail, and  speaking up about some of the very real dangers to pedestrians posed by buses.

One comment: This bus driver said his safety department managers insisted drivers “bear the responsibility for making absolutely sure that there are no pedestrians crossing the street before making a turn,” by rocking and rolling in “the seat before and during a turn to make sure we are looking around all the obstructions on the bus that are creating blind areas.” While it’s true drivers are responsible for steering clear of pedestrians, it is the bus companies that have a legal duty to hire, train and supervise these drivers. I’ve written often on the pages of this legal blog about how lawyers often miss this. They focus only on the role of the driver, and not on the company. But it’s the company that must do everything they can to properly train their drivers and provide them with the proper equipment to drive safely. Simply telling bus drivers to “rock and roll” in the seat made me wince. It is not enough.

In a recent blog post, I discussed how Boston is the first U.S. city to require side guards on trucks to prevent rear-end truck accidents where the victim’s car slips under the truck, resulting in catastrophic injuries and violent fatalities. Part of this ordinance also requires mirrors on trucks and buses to prevent pedestrian and bicyclist deaths.

Crossover mirrors are a simple, extremely inexpensive cost that largely eliminates the “no zone” blind spots discussed in the bus driver’s article. The mirrors are designed so that any person who is at least three feet tall and at least one foot away from the front of the cab can be seen by the truck driver in the mirror.

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