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

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.

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?"

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