The Government has recently announced that it intends to bring forward a package of measures in 2018 to enable bus companies to support wheelchair users to access buses and it is seeking input from stakeholders such as bus operators. This is an opportunity for bus operators to influence Government measures and enable drivers to best support wheelchair users access bus transport.
This follows the Supreme Court decision in 2017 in First Group PLC v Paulley  UKSC 4. Mr Paulley was unable to get on a bus because the only wheelchair space was already occupied by a parent with a buggy who refused to move. The Supreme Court held that First Group's policy requiring a driver to simply request a non-wheelchair user to vacate a wheelchair space, without taking any further steps was unjustified. What those further steps should be will depend on what is reasonable in the circumstances.
Although the Supreme Court provided some guidance in the form of practical examples as to how the driver should deal with conflicts over a wheelchair space, it left a large amount of uncertainty for bus operators as to exactly how they were to deal with such situations.
Government appointed stakeholder group to consider the Supreme Court decision
The Supreme Court's decision led the Government to appoint a stakeholder group to assist in the understanding of the implications of the decision and identify potential action points. The stakeholder group published its report in September 2017 which says that bus drivers should play an active role in ensuring that wheelchair users can access the wheelchair space on buses. The stakeholder group recommended a number of measures to better equip bus drivers and to raise awareness among bus users of what is expected of them. These include:
- Giving bus drivers the power to remove passengers from the bus who unreasonably refuse to move from a wheelchair space when asked to do so. This will require an update to the regulations governing drivers' duties and expected behaviours: The Public Service Vehicles (Conduct of Drivers, Inspectors, Conductors and Passengers) Regulations 1990 and the associated guidance.
- Raising public awareness of the need to move from a wheelchair space if it is required by a wheelchair user. This could be through a public awareness campaign, or improved signage on buses and work will need to be done to establish how best to do this.
- Updating existing guidance, conditions of carriage and disability awareness training best practice guidance to reflect the fact that other passengers will be required to move from the wheelchair space should it be required by a wheelchair user.
The Government announced in March 2018 that it accepted the stakeholder group's recommendations in principle. The Government press release says that it "will begin a process of further engagement to understand the specific experiences of a range of stakeholders affected by the wheelchair space issue, including wheelchair users, parents travelling with young children, and bus drivers – with a view to bringing forward a package of measures in 2018, informed by the group's recommendations and our further consideration, to support access to the wheelchair space".
It follows that there is now an opportunity for bus operators to influence the proposed package of measures to support access to the wheelchair space on buses and ensure that the Government understands the specific issues affecting bus operators and drivers. Bus operators now have the opportunity to present to the Government specific case examples where their drivers have encountered physically threatening behaviour or have felt threatened when requesting that other passengers vacate the wheelchair space for a wheelchair user, to ensure that the proposed measures avoid drivers putting themselves in harm's way whilst supporting wheelchair users.
What should bus companies do pending implementation of Government measures?
Until these measures are clarified, bus operators should continue to rely on the guidance provided the Supreme Court in cases of conflict between a wheelchair user and a non-wheelchair user who refuses to vacate an on-board wheelchair space. In summary:
- If the non-wheelchair user does not respond to a polite request by the bus driver to move, the bus driver should consider at least repeating the request to move, perhaps in more forceful terms, particularly if there are clearly other spaces that the passenger could use.
- If that does not work and, especially if the bus is ahead of schedule, the driver should consider further steps such as stopping the bus for a few minutes to exert more pressure on the passenger to move.
- There will, however, be circumstances where a driver may reasonably conclude that further pressure should not be put on a passenger to vacate the wheelchair space depending on the passenger's reasons for not moving (and potentially that passenger's behaviour).
In addition, bus operators should continue to keep their policies in relation to wheelchair spaces and notices concerning the same under review and ensure that they are communicated to drivers and other relevant employees.