The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday called for stronger safety regulations for buses and large trucks in the wake of a bus fire that killed 23 elderly Hurricane Rita evacuees nearly 18 months ago.
The board held a public meeting yesterday to discuss its findings of an investigation into the fire on a chartered bus operated by Global Limo Inc. It recommended several measures to prevent similar accidents. The recommendations included better detection systems for maintenance problems and stronger oversight over inspections at bus carriers.
The agency directed most of its recommendations at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency charged with reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses.
NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker expressed concern that the agency had not heeded all of its suggestions in the past. He noted that of more than 60 safety recommendations the NTSB proposed in the past eight years, only 26 have been adopted by the motor carrier agency.
"There is outrage when a couple hundred people are killed in aviation fatal accidents, yet you don't seem to see, share or demonstrate the same outrage when 4,300 people die on our nation's highways annually," Rosenker said. "We can make changes here on this board . . . to chip away piece by piece at the 4,300 people who die on highways."
In its report, the board blamed the September 2005 accident on Global Limo, saying the bus was "mechanically unsafe" when it transported the 44 assisted-living-facility residents from a Sunrise Senior Living community in Bellaire, Tex., to Dallas on Interstate 45. The fire started after poorly lubricated wheel bearings overheated in the right rear well, igniting a tire, investigators found.
Last month, a U.S. District Court in McAllen, Tex., sentenced the owner of Global Limo, James Maples, to five years' probation for poorly managing his fleet and not requiring all drivers to fill out vehicle inspection reports. Maples was fined $10,000, and his shuttered business was fined $100,000.
A government investigation after the accident found 168 alleged violations involving four other buses in Global Limo's fleet. The bus involved in the fatal accident near Dallas had an illegal license plate, and its driver did not have a valid U.S. driver's license.
Also among its findings, the NTSB said it did not fault Sunrise, which is based in McLean. The board said Sunrise took "reasonable action at the time" when it contracted Global Limo through a bus broker in Chicago.
Several lawsuits by victims' families have been filed against Sunrise, Global Limo and BusBank, the contracting service Sunrise used to charter the bus from Global Limo.
Sunrise officials said the NTSB's statement supported their contention that the decision to use BusBank seemed sound. "We looked at a lot of options but chose BusBank because we had prior success with them bringing residents out of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina," said Jamison Gosselin, a Sunrise spokesman.