Bus design: drivers first

The main character from the 1970s British sitcom On the Buses, a driver called Stan, was always trying to get off work with various hare-brained schemes.

Hardly surprising, when you learn that during this era work-related health problems forced bus drivers from the era to quit driving long before retirement age, says guest contributor Roger Brereton at bus and coach steering parts manufacturer Pailton Engineering.

Roger Brereton – Pailton Engineering

Thirty years ago, drivers not only had to drive the bus and navigate heavy traffic, but they were also responsible for tasks like supervising passenger loading and unloading, selling tickets and providing passengers with various kinds of information, all while sitting in an often ill-fitting workstation. Numerous studies have shown that this combination of psychological and physical stresses cut many a driver’s career short.

Since then, bus design has changed significantly, and drivers are now supported by technology. For example, as a passenger today, you can tap your travel card to buy a ticket, enjoy live travel updates on a digital screen and even charge your devices via USB. Modern buses are a world away from their ‘90s counterparts, but it seems much of the development has focussed on passengers. What about the drivers?

According to a 2024 RMT survey, drivers are still suffering at work. In fact, four out of five drivers (78%) say their occupation caused them musculoskeletal complaints such as back pain, shoulder pain or neck pain. If you ask them what the problem is, nineteen out of twenty (95%) say the driver cabin could be designed in a more ergonomic way to reduce the risk of discomfort and pain.

It’s no wonder the industry faces a staff shortage. The UK government is even relaxing rules on 18-year-old drivers to bolster the workforce, but what is the industry doing to make the role more attractive?


Get comfortable

Manufacturers must not be laid-back when it comes to driver comfort. Workplaces in general must be comfortable to improve wellbeing, but with passenger safety at risk if a driver becomes distracted, it’s especially important.

Seat design, for example, has evolved over the years to improve conditions for drivers. To reduce driver fatigue and increase comfort, seats are now fully adjustable, often heated, insulated from vibration and feature lumbar support. Controls are also more ergonomic, with various switches grouped according to frequency of use and within easy reach while driving.


Improved adjustability

One cabin feature that’s often overlooked is the steering column. Unlike domestic cars, which usually have just one or two drivers, buses are regularly driven by multiple different people, so frequently require adjustments to the cabin settings.

The one-size-fits-all approach no longer applies, and today most steering columns are adjustable to some degree. However, the RMT survey results suggest that drivers still find themselves forced into awkward postures and that there is room for improvement.

It may be that a greater range of adjustability would help. For example, a tilting head steering column that allows the driver to fully customise both the reach and the angle of the steering wheel might help ensure a comfortable and ergonomic driving posture that minimises shoulder, back and neck strain.

Additionally, drivers who are pressed for time at the beginning of a shift will benefit from an electric column with a memory function, so that the steering wheel instantly adjusts to a driver’s favourite position at the touch of a button. If connected to the seating, the seat could also adjust to their preferred position. This would eliminate the need for manual or repeated adjustments every shift, saving valuable time and ensuring maximum ergonomic benefit.

As well as reducing set-up time, a column designed to make adjusting the height and angle of the wheel quick and easy — or automatic — would ensure a comfortable posture throughout every shift, reducing the risk of fatigue and discomfort throughout the day.


Safe travels

Initially intended to protect drivers from unruly passengers, the cabin in modern buses is isolated from the rest of the interior with plexiglass.

This proved very useful for protecting drivers from illness during the pandemic, and now, dedicated climate control ensures a comfortable working temperature for the driver independent of passenger cabin conditions.

Some buses feature blind-spot monitoring systems combined with lane departure warnings and automatic emergency braking, further protecting passengers and assisting drivers. Live information about the vehicle is clearly displayed on an LCD screen within easy eyesight of the driver.

Buses are even safer for people outside the vehicle. Zero tailpipe emissions buses, such as electric or hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles, improve urban air quality and reduce pollution.

Although many of the features described above are common for new buses, bus drivers in rural areas are often stuck driving much older buses. With their more basic cabin design, drivers of these older buses are at greater risk of injury, as the RMT data demonstrates. Hopefully, these buses will soon seem as out of date as some of the dodgy jokes from On the Buses, and drivers will no longer be spending so much time recovering from back and neck pain.


Pailton Engineering designs and manufactures steering components and full steering systems for the bus and coach sector. To find out more, visit pailton.com

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