As we have reported in prior issues of the Report, there have been a number of bus disasters in the United States over the past two years. One such disaster, the crash of a chartered ski bus in Utah earlier this year, resulted in nine deaths and 42 other passengers injured. That incident got a great deal of national attention. The elements of the Utah crash — a stripped roof, the lack of seat belts, mass ejections — are far from extraordinary. This accident was one of half a dozen similarly deadly bus disasters in the United States over the past two years. The accidents have renewed calls for expanded federal safety oversight of the country’s commercial bus industry.
According to the latest U.S. government data, 51 people died in commercial motor coach crashes in 2007, an increase from 39 in 2006. There were 57,000 bus crashes that year, although that number combines commercial accidents with those of other types of buses. Data from 2008 are not yet available. Since 2000 – a year after the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report calling for stronger federal rules to prevent bus crash fatalities – 401 people have died in motor coach accidents. Although the death rate is only half that of passenger cars, it is about four times that of passenger trains and 25 times that of commercial airliners.
Fortunately, even quite late, the NTSB is now making a strong push for better safety rules for buses. The board’s recommendations for new bus safety rules include improved window designs and stronger roofs but still no seat belts. In response, federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have started to crash-test buses, but they have yet to formally begin the process of writing new rules. Hopefully, the agency will move rapidly on this issue.
Legislation to overhaul motor coach safety has been reintroduced in Congress this year. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Tex.) are pushing the legislation. Safety groups blame bus industry lobbying groups, including the American Bus Association, for pushing competing federal legislation that sets up roadblocks to new bus rules. An industry-backed bill unnecessarily draws out timetables for new rules, partly by demanding more scientific research. That is just another delaying tactic. Because of the reaction to the string of crashes, NHTSA, which has the power to mandate new motor coach safety equipment, has started to take action. Hopefully the agency will be serious about this undertaking.
I have never understood why buses shouldn’t have seat belts. School buses, which are not required to have seat belts, have been the subject of deeper scrutiny over the years and must meet different safety standards. Officials in the motor coach industry say their business is safe. Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said regulators in the European Union and Australia have required seat belts on buses since the 1990s.
But Donaldson says the lack of U.S. regulations extends beyond seat belts. Motor coaches aren’t required to have stability control that would protect against rollovers, a technology the government requires for passenger vehicles. Additionally, Donaldson questions the level of state and federal scrutiny of new bus companies, the thoroughness and frequency of vehicle inspections, border enforcement of the even more lightly-regulated Mexican buses, the absence of training and driving standards for drivers, and loopholes in medical rules relating to required examinations of drivers.
Source: Washington Post
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