More on the “panic stop” incident

Joseph Rose has more information about a TriMet passenger who was injured in the “panic stop” incident earlier this month. As you probably have heard, on December 2nd, a bike darted directly in front of the #9 bus, which was standing-room only, forcing the driver to panic-stop. The driver narrowly avoided missing the cyclist, who rode off off and is to this day unknown to authorities; but several passengers on the bus were injured. Including one whose injuries appear to be serious; he is reported to still be in ICU at OHSU, though hospital officials are unable to comment much more on his condition beyond that.
And he may be in an area of insurance “no-mans-land”. TriMet’s own liability policies only cover incidents where the TriMet operator is liable, given that the operator did the correct thing to avoid a collision, the insurance carrier will likely argue that they are not liable for the man’s injuries. TriMet also has an uninsured motorists’ policy, but that kicks in only kicks in when an “uninsured motorist” is at fault. Under Oregon law, bicyclists are not “motorists” for insurance purposes, so apparently that coverage doesn’t apply either. (Also, there’s ample case law that motorists who may cause collisions, but aren’t involved in them, have zero liability).

While I don’t want to start yet another debate about Should Bike Riders Be Licensed And Insured–the balance of harms suggests not, IMHO–but this brings up some interesting issues:

  • Should bike riders be treated as “motorists” for the purposes of uninsured motorist coverage?
  • How much liability should TriMet assume for passenger safety, particularly in no-fault incidents such as this? (TriMet has indicated that its insurance carriers are not likely to pay; but whether the victim or his family could sue TriMet regardless, I have no idea).
  • Given the no-win nature of the incident–the bus driver was essentially forced to choose between striking a road user, and placing standing passengers at risk, should any changes to safety measures be made? (No, I’m not suggesting that mowing down bikers to protect passengers is a viable option–I don’t want to go there; I’m wondering how better to protect passengers in panic-stop situations).

Thoughts?

18 Comments

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18 Responses to More on the “panic stop” incident

  1. R A Fontes
    December 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm Link

    One big advantage/disadvantage of light rail (including streetcar) is its leisurely 6mphps panic stop deceleration rate. If the incident had involved PSI or MAX, the cyclist’s next of kin would have been notified and the passengers uninjured.

  2. BBnet3000
    December 16, 2011 at 8:34 pm Link

    To me, this seems to indicate a lot of wierd assumptions in the insurance/liability scheme.

    1) That both parties in the accident will be autos.

    2) All incidents are accidents. In this case, no crash occurred, though for a non-common carrier vehicle injury would be much less likely obviously.

    3) All parties involved in an incident/accident end up damaged and involved, or else can be said to “leave the scene of the accident”. This biker appears to be at fault, but one would suppose that they did not know until well afterward that anyone was hurt.

  3. EngineerScotty
    December 16, 2011 at 9:22 pm Link

    Lest this turn into a referendum on bikes; I would ask all readers to also consider the possibility that a small car, or an adult pedestrian, or a child chasing a ball, is what wanders into the path of the bus.

    And regarding MAX and streetcar–the stopping distance of trains is limited by the the greater kinetic energy of trains, and by the physics of steel wheels on steel rails–not by the braking system. While a modern braking system can make a panic stop more smooth and controlled; the fundamental limit on deceleration is the train itself, not the electronics.

  4. Wetshoes
    December 16, 2011 at 11:20 pm Link

    +1 for EngineerScotty. Obviously, the injuries were not due to Tri-Met negligence, but it’s not the passenger’s fault either. It would sure be nice to know that if I get on a train or a bus and get hurt, I won’t go bankrupt from medical costs. Seems like some kind of all-inclusive no-fault coverage would be good, and an incident like this is so rare, it shouldn’t cause a major premium increase. I hope.

  5. al m
    December 17, 2011 at 10:44 am Link

    Hopefully the person injured has some sort of medical coverage.

    My bet is that a GOOD LAWYER could win a case against TRIMET .

    And the whole insurance scam is just that, a scam which is set up for the specific purpose of finding ways not to pay people when they are injured.

    God bless America.

  6. ws
    December 17, 2011 at 3:34 pm Link

    If the bus driver hit and killed the bicyclist, even if the biker ran a red light, we’d be hearing about how the bus driver killed someone and how he or she should be accountable.

    Unfortunately, we need incidents like this to happen for the transportation community to realize that we need better enforcement of rules and laws on the roads.

    I simply don’t see it in Portland. How about more bike/auto stings? Make people pay for their utter disregard for their fellow human beings.

    Aren’t we tired of this auto vs. bike charade that keeps getting played out?

    I am.

  7. zefwagner
    December 17, 2011 at 4:27 pm Link

    Regarding rail deceleration, I would just point out that computer-controlled systems like BART or Skytrain can stop a lot faster than a human driver due to better reaction times. Plus it reduces labor costs, which allows more frequency. Oh, how I would love to see a computer-controlled MAX line in Portland one day! SW corridor has potential unless they insist on tying it into existing service.

  8. bjcefola
    December 17, 2011 at 4:50 pm Link

    Two thoughts:

    -It is not accurate to imply that drivers who cause an accident but are not involved in it have no liability. I think the odds of attaching liability to the bicyclist would be extremely high, if the rider could be identified.

    – Trimet has to have a general liability cover. How do they handle slip and falls?

  9. zefwagner
    December 17, 2011 at 5:08 pm Link

    The driver absolutely did the right thing. It is highly unlikely any passengers would actually die from a quick stop, whereas the cyclist would have died for sure. I would rather see 20 injuries than one death. I hope the driver doesn’t get grief for this.

  10. D
    December 17, 2011 at 5:33 pm Link

    I think both the linked too article was missing some critical information, namely, whether tri met is strictly liable as a common carrier.

    At common law, common carriers were typically strictly liable for harms caused to their patrons. A bus company is a classic common carrier. Strict liability means that the party is liable regardless of fault. By contrast, if the liability standard requires negligence, tri met would not be liable unless it could be shown that the agency or its employees acted in an unreasonable manner.

    Given the facts here, the driver was not nelgigent in hitting the brakes (given the risk to the cyclist as compared to riders). One could argue that its negligent of trimet to allow customers on the bus when there are not enough seats, but I think most people (and judges and juries) would reject that.

    So really the question is whether tri-met is subject to strict liability. The information about the insurance policy is irrelevant on that measure – all that means is that the agency’s insurance company won’t be paying. So it may be that the rider in question will still be able to recover.

    And let us remember: to paraphrase Richard Posner: liability is ALWAYS imposed on somebody for every accident-it may be on trimet, or it may be on the rider, it could be the cylcist. If you disallow recovery, liability is imposed on someone. Posner would suggest that the party that should be liable is the “least cost avoider,” – namely, the party that can pay the smallest amount in order to avoid future accidents. If we place liability on that person, they will have the incentive to minimize accidents. In this case, I would guess that the least cost avoider is the cyclist (who can avoid accidents by safely biking), followed by trimet (who can train drivers to go slower), then the rider (who can try to hold on perhaps?) .

  11. Jason McHuff
    December 17, 2011 at 7:17 pm Link

    First of all, it’s possible that the harsh braking was the operator’s instinctive reaction upon seeing the bicyclist.

    But two thoughts on the matter:
    One idea to protect passengers is to limit braking to a level that doesn’t lead to harm to them (the bus might still end up stopping before the wheels make it to the bicyclist–or a pedestrian)

    In addition, if we had universal health care, there wouldn’t be worry about whether the person will be taken care of. Instead, we’d realize that incidents like this happen, and sooner or later health care will be needed even if it is not one’s fault.

  12. Chris I
    December 18, 2011 at 7:37 am Link

    Zefwenger,

    Does innocence play any role here, though? The cyclist was clearly breaking the law, and putting others at danger. You would rather see several innocent people injured, including one severely, than a single law-breaker get killed?

  13. zefwagner
    December 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm Link

    Well, I don’t support the death penalty, and even if I did I wouldn’t support it being meted out instantly and with no due process. It was probably a mistake, just like the million times a day that cars cut each other off because they don’t check their blind spots. I wouldn’t say they all deserve death.

  14. Jared Kam
    December 18, 2011 at 6:40 pm Link

    I wonder if the case could be made that the specifications of the bus involved (bus #2014) could have caused TriMet to be held liable. The bus involved is only 1 of 22 in the fleet that have this particular engine/transmission configuration (Detroit Diesel Series 50 coupled to an Allison B400R transmission) which would directly influence the way the bus stops. The Allison transmission has a retarder (which helps slow the bus down) on it that operates much differently than the Voith transmissions that are found on every other bus in the fleet (excluding 2163-2165, which are Gillig high floor buses with the Cummins M11 engine with the same Allison transmission). If the operators weren’t specifically trained on this particular specification or may have not driven this particular series of buses in a long time without a refresher, maybe a case could be made that TriMet was somehow negligent.

    Just an idea for a hungry lawyer…

  15. al m
    December 18, 2011 at 7:21 pm Link

    TriMet should pay the expenses of the passenger for crying out loud.
    Sheesh….

  16. Bjorn
    December 19, 2011 at 12:38 am Link

    The video is pretty poor quality, it does appear to me that the cyclist ran the stop sign, I am not as sure that the bus driver’s panic stop prevented a collision. It is very hard to tell if the cyclist would actually have been hit if the driver had only braked normally.

    Also I think that people riding on buses and standing have a responsibility to be holding onto straps, the man might have fallen even with a much lower braking rate.

    I say all of this even though I have been involved in an accident that was caused by a cyclist in a similar incident when they also left the scene.

    One final note, Joe Rose makes his living creating conflict between Portlander’s and if only that he will not have a megaphone anymore, I can’t wait for the Oregonian to go under.

  17. John Reinhold
    December 19, 2011 at 8:57 am Link

    I would like to echo Jason McHuff’s comment. Not to change the subject – but if we had socialized health care then *liability wouldn’t matter as much*.

    Sure, there could be problems with long-term impacts – say if a person becomes disabled as a result or whatnot. But in the immediate need of medical care to heal an injured person – we should not be bickering about liabilities, but rather how quickest and best to make a person well again…

    I now return you to your regularly scheduled bus vs train vs bicycle arguments… ;)

    P.S. at least you guys in PDX get to have _these_ arguments; down here in the mid-south there are no bicycles, busses, or trains – but we do have cars with drivers who apparently never had any requirement to learn laws or develop skill before being licensed…

  18. John Reinhold
    December 19, 2011 at 10:04 am Link

    I would like to echo Jason McHuff’s comment. Not to change the subject – but if we had socialized health care then *liability wouldn’t matter as much*.

    Sure, there could be problems with long-term impacts – say if a person becomes disabled as a result or whatnot. But in the immediate need of medical care to heal an injured person – we should not be bickering about liabilities, but rather how quickest and best to make a person well again…

    I now return you to your regularly scheduled bus vs train vs bicycle arguments… ;)

    P.S. at least you guys in PDX get to have _these_ arguments; down here in the mid-south there are no bicycles, busses, or trains – but we do have cars with drivers who apparently never had any requirement to learn laws or develop skill before being licensed…

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