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As Bus Travel Grows, Probe of Fatal 2008 Crash Revives Push For New Safety Rules
Meanwhile, the number of horrific bus crashes mounts. Last August, a bus carrying 55 Vietnamese American pilgrims from Houston to a religious festival in Missouri blew a tire, skidded off the highway and rolled, resulting in 17 deaths. In January, a bus carrying Chinese tourists returning from a trip to the Grand Canyon rolled over, killing seven and leaving survivors with spinal cord damage, head injuries and bone fractures.
On April 4, a shuttle bus carrying about 30 employees of a Lake Tahoe resort veered off the road and rolled several times, killing one person and injuring many others.
"These were workers traveling by bus to jobs in housekeeping and in the kitchen," Kitty Higgins, an NTSB board member, said about that crash.
"Motor coaches are very popular with tourists and senior citizens, church groups and student groups. In many ways, these are vulnerable populations."
One high-profile accident came in March 2007 when a bus loaded with Bluffton University baseball players plunged off an overpass, causing seven deaths, including five players. In response to public outrage, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Tex.) began pushing legislation to overhaul motor coach safety. A version has been reintroduced in Congress this year, but its prospects are unclear.
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. The groups complain that an industry-backed bill unnecessarily draws out timetables for new rules, partly by demanding more scientific research. The industry denies that.
Reaction to the string of crashes also put pressure on NHTSA, which has the power to mandate new motor coach safety equipment. Medford defends the agency from charges that it is moving too slowly. He pointed to ongoing NHTSA studies that tackle fire safety and finding improvements to emergency exits on buses. He said the agency is wrapping up research that could lead to new seat belt rules.
School buses, which are not required to have seat belts either, 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. Peter Pantuso, chief executive of the American Bus Association, said fatalities from bus crashes are a small slice of the nation's 42,000 deaths in highway traffic each year.
The fatality rate of motor coaches in 2007 was 0.5 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the bus association. The figure is well below the fatality rate for passenger vehicles: 1.04 per 100 million miles. But it is higher than other forms of public transportation. Based on the latest data, the fatality rate for commuter rail travel is 0.13 deaths per 100 million miles; for commercial aviation, the fatality rate is 0.02 deaths per 100 million miles.
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 he said 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 that allow drivers to go "doctor shopping" for required examinations.
"It is the most unregulated commercial motor vehicle on the roads today," he said.
Parents of people who have died on buses don't believe the U.S. government is acting as swiftly as it can. John Betts lost his 20-year-old son in the Bluffton crash.
"Don't tell me how safe motor coaches are," he said. "I have a dead son. I'm not saying they are not a safe mode of transportation. I'm saying that motor coaches can be a lot safer for everybody. If you can eliminate those 40 or 50 deaths per year, why wouldn't you want to?"