By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency charged with investigating major transportation accidents, yesterday hammered regulators at the Department of Transportation for lax oversight of the commercial bus industry.
The board unanimously voted to cite the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for failing to implement recommendations that could lead to new safety equipment on buses, including seatbelts and stronger roofs and windows. They have been prodding NHTSA to enact their suggestions since 1999.
The vote came after investigators at the safety board laid out a probe of a Jan. 6, 2008, rollover crash in remote southeastern Utah that killed nine passengers and injured 43. It was one of a string of deadly commercial bus accidents involving passenger ejections over the past two years.
Though the safety board identified driver fatigue as the primary cause of the crash, the board said NHTSA's delay in developing standards to protect people on buses contributed to the severity of the crash.
Mark V. Rosenker, acting chairman of NTSB, said the board was frustrated watching transportation regulators "crawl toward" improved safety standards.
"It's like looking at NHTSA back in the '60s," Rosenker said. "They began to make great improvements in our automobiles, but virtually nothing has been done in motorcoaches for decades. I suggest maybe this accident will be a call to action."
Safety board member Deborah Hersman said one of the first cases she dealt with when she joined the board in 2004 involved bus crash safety.
"I'm being told almost five years later that NHTSA is working on it," she said.
NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson, in response to the safety board's action yesterday, said the agency is working on new regulations. Officials at the agency have said the process shouldn't be rushed.
In the safety board's probe, investigators revealed details about the condition of the 71-year-old driver in the Utah crash. The board concluded that he was fatigued on the night of the accident, causing him to speed and lose control of the bus, which was moving between 88 and 92 miles per hour when it crashed. In the days before the accident, the driver reported suffering from a head cold, may have experienced altitude sickness and was losing sleep nightly, possibly as a result of sleep apnea, the investigators said.
Board members took aim at medical oversight by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, another agency within the transportation department. The agency is responsible for drivers' medical certifications. Board members complained that the agency had yet to act on medical recommendations issued by an outside advisory board, including a suggestion on sleep apnea, a condition where a sleeper stops breathing.
"It points up again the holes in the system," said safety board member Kitty Higgins. "I can't find where we are getting at this particular issue."
In a statement, Candice Tolliver, a spokeswoman for the motor carrier administration, said the agency had an "aggressive regulatory agenda." She said the agency was reviewing the medical board's recommendations and supplementing them with additional research.
Bus accident victims are increasingly pressing the government for action. Teresa and Maurice Washington of Peoria, Ariz., were traveling on the Utah bus with their 12-year-old son. Teresa experienced a concussion, a dislocated elbow and a broken right arm. Maurice's ribs were broken. Their son, the couple's only child, was killed.
The Washingtons said they weren't placing blame but that they expected the government to act.
"I'm surprised they have continued to make these recommendations but nothing changes," Maurice Washington said. "I'm still kicking myself for getting on a bus without safety belts."