NOV. LCT: What operators can learn about building a steady client base from a leading fleet vehicle seller.
Are you thinking motorcoach safety every day, from the top down to the bottom up? Or are you meeting the fewest requirements because you look at safety as an added expense?
“There are two ways operators look at safety and maintenance, which go hand in hand,” says Stephen Story, president of James River Transportation in Richmond, Va. “There are operators who look at it as an expense category that they want to keep as low as possible. Then you have operators who embed a ‘safety culture’ throughout the company. I think those who look at safety as an expense are just rolling the dice.”
With a fleet of 35 motorcoaches, Story knows better than anyone the responsibility of transporting 50-plus passengers safely every day. It results from a company-wide effort that costs money, but “safety is a huge selling point,” he adds. “I’d say 80% of the time safety is a top priority for clients, and it’s something we talk about at meetings.”
A commitment to safety is a good return on investment. It starts at the top. “Everything we do, from our sales approach, to maintenance, to drivers, operations, and dispatchers is centered around a safety culture — and that starts with the leadership team,” Story says.
He explains safety is not about holding a few meetings a year and just going through the motions, but “an awareness in our minds” discussed all the time. “People think safety training is a one-time thing, when in fact, instilling a culture of safety is repetitive. You train someone to do something, but the key is to go over and over it. That’s what a proactive safety culture is all about — repetition. Otherwise, you lose it because we all can fall back into bad habits.”
Story advises operators that fleet size and revenue volume do not matter when investing in safety and maintenance. “We had the same commitment to safety when we had 15 buses as we do today. There are companies out there that just band-aide a problem, but that will come back to haunt them, and really, how do you put a price tag on poor customer service?”
In addition, a commitment to safety and maintenance pays off with lower insurance costs and deductibles, client retention and new business. “In fact, in the long run, not having a commitment to safety is more expensive,” Story says.
Up and Running
A commitment to safety obviously depends on well-maintained motorcoaches. “First and foremost, you don’t have another bus around the corner and the last thing you need is 50 upset people,” says Jeff Shanker, vice president and general manager of A-1 Limousine in Princeton, N.J., which operates 18 motorcoaches.
“Maintenance is a lot more [thorough], and it takes more time and is labor intensive. For example, a bus tire weighs 150 pounds and you can’t change it in five minutes. Even brakes weigh 25 pounds, so maintenance takes a lot longer. Look at the air conditioning; it has to work properly. You can’t have it either an ice box or an oven. It has to be efficient to keep passengers comfortable.”
Running motorcoaches is not like the other art of the business, Shanker says. “Your sedans come back every night, but we run charter trips through multiple states so your equipment has to be top-notch. We are diligent about safety and maintenance, and it is about having a safety culture throughout the company.”
With 87 motorcoaches, San Francisco-based Bauer’s Intelligent Transportation (I.T.) operates the largest coach fleet in the industry, according to this year’s LCT annual list of the industry’s 50 Largest Fleets. Founder and CEO Gary Bauer’s safety and maintenance mission is to stay ahead of the curve. He not only champions a safety culture, but rewards drivers and operations staff who go above and beyond to help the cause.
A main incentive is “Bauer Bucks,” a program that rewards staff with cash for spotting maintenance and safety issues that ultimately save the company money and keep the fleet in top shape. As one of the largest operators in the nation (318 vehicles), the company’s growth and success is grounded in safety.
“We do pre-checks, spot checks and cross checks to make sure our buses are fully inspected and ready to go,” Bauer says. Every month, Bauer rewards employees who bring a safety or maintenance problem, or potential problems, to the company’s attention. “Because, I would rather pay our people who save us money, rather than pay a vendor to fix something.”
Bauer notes that establishing a safety culture also means that before a motorcoach run, drivers are fully briefed, fully dressed in black attire, and have a GPS so the trip can be monitored. “We reward on-time performance but that means drivers are fully prepared and think safety and maintenance. For example, we give Bauer Bucks to drivers who record the best fuel economy, because they aren’t wasting fuel idling, speeding, driving erratically, or doing fast starts — that’s all about safety and maintenance.”
Following a 2014 head-on fiery crash between a tractor-trailer and a motorcoach in Orland, Calif., which resulted in 10 deaths and 39 injuries, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made recommendations to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to improve bus design and overall passenger safety.
The NTSB urges bus manufacturers to improve emergency exit design for faster evacuations, better design for fire protection, and use of more fire-resistant interior materials. Further, the board recommended in July that all buses be equipped with data recorders (black boxes).
“Much of the reason that aviation is so safe today is that we have required such recorders for decades so that we can learn the lessons of accidents,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart, in calling for mandatory black boxes in buses.
In its post-Orland crash report, the NTSB said, “Contributing to the severity of some bus passengers’ injuries were the high impact forces; the release of combustible fluids, leading to a fast-spreading post-crash fire; difficulties in motorcoach egress; and lack of restraint use.”
Regarding restraints, beginning in November 2016 all new buses must be equipped with lap and shoulder belts for each driver and passenger. Many manufactures already took the initiative years ago to install seat belts on new models.
On average, 21 motorcoach and large bus occupants are killed and 7,934 are injured annually in crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Requiring seat belts could reduce fatalities by up to 44% and reduce the number of moderate to severe injuries by up to 45%.
“While travel on motorcoaches is overall a safe form of transportation, when accidents do occur, there is the potential for a greater number of deaths and serious injuries due to the number of occupants and high speeds at which the vehicles are traveling,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said. “Adding seat belts to motorcoaches increases safety for all passengers and drivers, especially in the event of a rollover crash.”
Source: NTSB press release
Pack a Tool Kit
When a motorcoach breaks down, operators have much at risk. Foremost, 50-plus passengers are stranded. A replacement bus or mechanic could be hours away. Not only are the passengers — and your client — miffed at not reaching their destination for a timely event, but your reputation is damaged because your bus is broken down on the highway for all motorists to see.
“A bus sitting on the side of the road does not build confidence in your company,” Jeff Shanker says. “In addition, towing a bus is expensive, costing hundreds to thousands of dollars.”
To minimize downtime when a bus is down on a job, A-1 Limousine tries to hire drivers with some mechanical ability who can do repairs on the road. “Most of our drivers carry emergency tool kits that include parts such as extra hoses so a driver can do a quick fix to get the bus up and running,” Shanker explains.
When a bus breaks down, the driver will contact the service manager to try and diagnose the problem and see if it can be repaired on the spot. “A couple of years ago, a bus broke down not too far away from the office and I gathered some tools and spare parts,” he says. “After we made the switch, I repaired the bus and brought it back to the office, saving time and money.”
Ideally, on interstate trips where the bus is hundreds of miles away, a driver should be able to make a repair.
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