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Davis, California

Friday, June 14, 2024

Watts legal?

Before spring break, this column answered a reader’s question about whether it’s legal for a bus driver to cram passengers on a bus beyond the vehicle’s capacity. I explained that many buses will have a Vehicle Inspection Certificate stating the maximum capacity; if you encounter a bus with such a sign, the posted number is the upper limit. Such signs don’t appear on Unitrans buses, however, so this column prompted a couple emails, as well as dozens of Facebook posts, from several Unitrans drivers:

Because Unitrans does not own school buses, it’s not required to provide Vehicle Inspection Approval Certificates or maximum capacity signs. There is a sign at the front that states that all standing passengers must be behind the white or yellow line; this is the only restriction on numbers of passengers to fit on one bus.

… I think it should be seen as impressive when a driver is able to pack a bus in a short amount of time. This means that every passenger gets to class on time. There may be the “awkward discomfort” of having your personal space encroached on, but it generally lasts less than ten minutes.

It is in everyone’s best interest to pack the bus at peak service hours. When passengers are left behind (which does happen sometimes, unfortunately), not only are passengers unsatisfied, the driver and the supervisor have to fill out paperwork documenting the incident — which can result in the driver being late to class or their next shift.

… California’s regulations allow standing-room-only buses: “Standing passengers are permitted only on a bus … operated in regularly scheduled passenger stage service or urban and suburban service by a common carrier or publicly-owned transit system, and equipped with grab handles or other means of support for standing passengers, and constructed so that standing room in the aisle is at least 74 in. high.”

— Various bus drivers, Davis, CA

Answer: A driver obviously doesn’t have to adhere to a max capacity sign that’s not actually there, and you can stand in buses without those signs. But if there is a max capacity sign, it’s mandatory. And every bus does have a maximum capacity — even those without a sign. A bus is not a black hole; one cannot cram an infinite number of passengers on a bus, no matter how large.

The method of determining that maximum capacity will vary with the type of bus, but there are indeed limits to every bus’s capacity. The short answer? A bus should not carry more passengers than what’s safe.

While packing a bus to the gills might be “impressive,” the risk of a driver having to fill out paperwork or miss class is preferable to the alternative: Passengers getting injured.

A crushed passenger would disagree that it’s in “everyone’s best interest to pack the bus.” Courts — and juries — tend to side with the crushed passenger as well, if the injury was caused primarily by the bus operator’s negligence.

And because Unitrans, like any other public transportation, is considered a “common carrier,” it is more likely to lose a passenger’s lawsuit than a private citizen giving her friends a ride in her car. Common carriers have a high duty of care to their passengers.

Under the common law, most transport for hire are considered common carriers. The requirement is codified in section 2100 of the California Civil Code, which provides that “[a] carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.”

Section 2101 is similar: “A carrier of persons for reward is bound to provide vehicles safe and fit for the purposes to which they are put, and is not excused for default in this respect by any degree of care.”

In other words, a common carrier is held to a high degree of care and diligence; courts hold a common carrier liable for most any error that causes harm to a passenger, even if the error was accidental. Trains, stagecoaches, buses and even elevators have been held to be common carriers. Based on the emails received from bus drivers, one can assume Unitrans is also holding itself out as a common carrier.

California case law is replete with examples of common carriers, including bus companies, held liable for injuring their customers — including dozens of cases of crushed passengers in overcrowded, standing-room-only transport.

The common carrier’s primary duty is to exercise diligence in ensuring the safety of their passengers. Getting to class is secondary. Avoiding paperwork is secondary. Safety is primary.

Overcrowded buses also pose other legal problems, depending on the circumstances. Overcrowded buses in Los Angeles prompted a civil rights lawsuit in the mid-1990s which resulted in a settlement. In the case, known as Labor/Community Strategy Center v. Los Angeles County MTA, the defendant agreed to stop overcrowding rather than risk a trial. When buses got overcrowded again, they got sued again in 2009 for violating the settlement terms.

Yes, “standing-room-only” is allowed on certain buses. Totally fine, if there’s no maximum seating capacity. But when a bus has too many people on it to safely drive without slamming passengers into windows or suffocating the elderly, it’s a legal problem.

If your safety is at risk, you might want to speak up. You’ll probably incur the wrath of the bus drivers (as this columnist did for making the suggestion last month). But dealing with an upset bus driver is better than getting smashed or suffocated, if that’s the choice you’re facing.

And in the long run, it’s better for Unitrans to be late occasionally than to have injured passengers suing them.

Daniel is a Sacramento attorney, former Davis City Council candidate and graduate of UC Davis School of Law. He’ll answer questions sent to him at governorwatts@gmail.com or tweeted to @governorwatts.


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