By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009 8:53 PM
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday ordered a departmental review of commercial bus safety, a response to a string of fatal bus accidents across the country and criticism that the federal government has failed to act.
LaHood's review is scheduled to be completed by August. The announcement comes a week after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Transportation Department, was slammed by the National Transportation Safety Board for failing to implement recommendations that could lead to new safety equipment on buses, including seatbelts and stronger roofs and windows. The safety board has been prodding NHTSA to enact its suggestions since 1999.
The criticism followed a safety board hearing concerning a bus crash near Mexican Hat, Utah, in January 2008 that killed nine people and injured 43. The safety board criticized NHTSA and other transportation agencies for moving too slowly.
"I'm really pleased that somebody over there is finally looking at motor coach safety," said Jackie Gillan, vice president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "The secretary needs to look at this mode of transportation and get the agency moving."
But she said LaHood's review should not be viewed as a substitute for congressional action on motor coach safety.
"Legislation will ensure at the end of the day all these things are done," Gillan said.
According to the latest government data, 51 people died in commercial motor coach crashes in 2007, an increase from 39 in 2006. Figures for 2008 aren't available. Since 2000, 401 people have died in motor coach accidents.
Agencies involved in the review will include the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration, as well as NHTSA.
Gillan and other advocacy groups support a bus safety bill sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.). Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) has a similar bill in the House. Bus industry groups have been supportive of a competing measure by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.)