As Bus Travel Grows, Probe of Fatal 2008 Crash Revives Push For New Safety Rules

A look at deadly bus crashes across the United States.
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On Jan. 6, 2008, a chartered ski bus traveling over a ridge in southeastern Utah slipped off the edge of the road at a curve, dropped off an embankment and tumbled over.

Though the bus rolled just once, the force of the crash shredded the roof and rocketed all but two of the 53 occupants out of their seats and onto the side of the road. The two people not thrown were the bus driver, secure in his seat belt -- the only belt on the bus-- and a man in a rear seat whose leg had become stuck.

As a result of the accident, nine passengers were killed, and 43 others received injuries ranging from minor bruises to a blinded eye, broken backs and severe brain damage. Survivors remember a horrible night of watching people die in the dark in the mud.

The elements of the crash -- a stripped roof, the lack of seat belts, mass ejections -- are far from extraordinary. The accident, known to federal investigators as Mexican Hat after the little town near the crash site, was one of half a dozen similarly deadly U.S. bus disasters in the past two years. The accidents have renewed calls for expanded federal safety oversight of the country's vast, free-wheeling 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.

Today, the NTSB will lay out its inquiry into the Mexican Hat crash. Investigators are expected to give a detailed account, including the precise cause of the accident. Among those in the audience is likely to be Peggy Murrietta, the mother of Joseph DeBolske, who died in the crash one day after his 18th birthday. Murrietta says her son would be alive today if the government had moved quicker to regulate the industry.

"A seat belt would have saved my son," she said. "I am absolutely certain that had there been even the most basic seat belt on that bus, my son would have had that belt on."

Commercial bus travel has been growing 3 to 7 percent annually in recent years, according to industry groups. Each year more than 34,000 commercial buses transported 750 million passengers in the United States and Canada, giving commercial bus travel the same breadth as commercial air travel. With cash-strapped airlines cutting routes that connect smaller cities, motor coaches have been described as the commuter jets of the nation's highway system.

But comparisons with the heavily regulated airline industry end there. In fact, a late-model sport-utility vehicle might be sold with more safety equipment than a typical motor coach. The NTSB's recommendations for new bus safety rules include improved window designs and stronger roofs. In response, federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the transportation department, have started to crash-test buses, but they have yet to formally begin the process of writing new rules.

Ron Medford, NHTSA's acting deputy administrator, said the process can't be rushed.

"We expect to make regulatory decisions based on comprehensive research that we've been doing on motor coaches," he said.

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