Priority use of bus wheelchair spaces

26 February 2015

The contentious and long-running quest to discover whether wheelchair users on buses have priority over all other passengers in using the wheelchair space is still not resolved following the recent Appeal Court ruling.   Lord Justice Underhill said that it has to be accepted that wheelchair users will occasionally be prevented by other passengers from using the wheelchair space on the bus.

The matter was referred to the Court of Appeal as two previous county-court cases of wheelchair users challenging bus companies over priority rights had resulted in conflicting rulings: in one case the court ruled in favour (vs. First Group in Leeds), in another against (vs. Arriva Darlington in Middlesbrough) of wheelchair  users’ right to priority.

Many bus companies currently operate a “first-come, first-served” policy, allowing passengers who board first to place push-chairs, large luggage or shopping trolleys in the wheelchair space.  Wheelchair users are turned away if the space is full.  Other bus companies (e.g. Stagecoach and Transport for London) have a clear policy whereby wheelchair spaces must be vacated for wheelchair users.

Wheelchair users argue that but for their campaigns in the 1990s to get spaces aboard buses, no such space would now be available and that the benefit of their efforts is being denied them.

In Passenger Focus’s view, the key point arising from the Court of Appeal is that this is an issue that Parliament can/should resolve through legislation.  Parliament enacted the law requiring the space to be provided; now it should be Parliament which clarifies priority in using that space. The judge in the Darlington case ruled (partly) in favour of the bus company, in Leeds against, and now the Court of Appeal has ruled in favour.  This indicates ambiguity and doubt within the existing law. It seems to us simpler to remove that ambiguity entirely rather than seek further legal argument on a grey area.

We appreciate the very real problems faced by all bus passengers, vying to use the same space.  Until any further progress is made in this matter, bus operators need to communicate policies clearly and bus drivers need full training to enable them to resolve on-board conflicts effectively and fairly.

The question of priority of use of a wheelchair space on buses is slightly different to that on trains.  On many rail services a wheelchair user can reserve a wheelchair space at least 24 hours in advance through the national Passenger Assist system, which guarantees that space to the person reserving it – just as a seat reservation guarantees a particular seat. Also, many trains have on-board staff who can mediate in disputes over use of the space, which a bus driver, with other duties, may not always be able to do. It must also be borne in mind that even a short train generally has more space available than a bus which gives rise to fewer conflicts in the first place.

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