Deadly bus crashes over the past decade have claimed a tremendous number of lives. The recent New York accident mentioned in the April issue, which killed 15 passengers and critically injured several others, as well as recent bus accidents in New Hampshire and New Jersey appear to have brought about renewed interest on the part of Congress. Hopefully, as a result, bipartisan legislation that would require regulators to act on longstanding bus safety recommendations may pass. A Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee held a hearing on the bill last month and Transportation Department officials were asked to explain their slow progress implementing bus safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board. Some of the recommendations have been ignored for more than a decade and that’s inexcusable.
The recommendations, directed at large buses known as motor coaches, include requiring seatbelts for all passengers and electric onboard recorders that keep track of how many hours a driver has been behind the wheel. The NTSB also has urged that buses have stronger roofs that aren’t easily crushed or sheared off to prevent passengers from being ejected in a rollover and to ensure they have enough space inside to survive. The Board wants bus windows to be glazed using new, more advanced methods so they hold together even when shattered. Lastly, the Board wants windows and exits that are easier for passengers to open. It’s hard to believe that these recommendations haven’t been mandated by Congress.
About half of all motor coach fatalities in recent years have occurred as the result of rollovers, and about 70 percent of those killed in rollover accidents were ejected from the bus, according to the Transportation Department. NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman told The Associated Press:
It’s frustrating to be on the sidelines and get called to yet another accident in (New York) and know the issues that we’ve made recommendations on are stagnating. If the regulatory agency had moved on their rulemakings, or the Congress had required these things to be done, we might have been able to prevent some of these fatalities.
The safety board has scheduled a public forum this month on the Transportation Department’s progress in implementing bus and truck recommendations. In November 2009, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a plan for issuing regulations that address many of the NTSB recommendations. The only recommendation that has been fully implemented is a ban on texting by bus and truck drivers. The Department also has proposed rules requiring seatbelts for all bus passengers and electric onboard recorders. A ban on handheld cellphone use by bus and truck drivers while driving was also proposed. Those rules have not been made final.
New bus driver testing standards to ensure uniformity across state licensing agencies and reduce the likelihood of licensing and testing fraud are certainly needed. The regulations will also require new drivers to obtain a commercial learner’s permit prior to obtaining a commercial driver’s license. The Department says it will issue new, mandatory training standards for entry level commercial bus drivers by this fall.
For some reason, defining what kind of training a driver must have before obtaining a commercial driver’s license, and improving testing standards for drivers has been an especially difficult issue. It should be noted that Congress has been calling for the development of driver training and testing standards for 20 years. While the Department started to work on new rules in 1993, the rules were finally issued in 2004. But those rules were successfully challenged in court as being too weak and at odds with the Department’s own safety data. The Transportation Department has been working on the latest round of driver training and testing regulations for nearly six years. In the meanwhile there have been numerous deaths and injuries that could have been avoided had the government acted.
According to the NTSB, 60% of the fatal motorcoach crashes the Board investigated over a 12-year period were the result of problems related to the driver. It appears that LaHood has significantly stepped up enforcement of bus safety regulations. That’s definitely an improvement, compared to eight years of inaction during the Bush administration. During the last three years, the Department has placed 75 motorcoach carriers out-of-service for safety violations. During the three years previous, only 46 carriers had been shut down. A very good bill, with wide bipartisan support, was all ready for Senate passage last year. But Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., placed a hold on the measure. With Congress closing in on adjournment, and other pressing legislation waiting to be voted on, the bill died.
According to Sen. Coburn, the bill wasn’t “cost-effective.” It appears the Senator will oppose the bill again. But Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, co-sponsor of the bus safety bill with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, believes passengers would be willing to pay more for safety improvements. “These are relatively minor costs that are amortized over the life of a bus,” Sen. Brown said in an interview with the Associated Press. Currently, there are about 750 million passenger trips a year on motorcoaches in the U.S. It’s high time for the federal government to get serious about bus safety and to make the changes that are necessary. It’s a matter of safety and that’s very important to all of us.
Source: Associated Press
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