The recommendations issued at the conclusion of the NTSB’s investigation of a fiery crash involving a FedEx truck and a bus in Northern California, could push significant reforms in the safety protocols of the intercity bus transportation industry that provides as many as 605 million passenger trips annually.
The NTSB said passengers who choose a motorcoach to travel daily between cities deserve the same level of safety standards required for other modes of transportation such as train and air.
“We cannot undo the terrible toll of the crash,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said, speaking about the April 10, 2014 Oakland, Calif. crash that killed 10 people, including the two drivers and five high school students.. “We can, however, repeat our urgent message to regulators to take appropriate action to give motorcoach passengers a better chance of walking away from any such crash in the future.”
NTSB investigators said they couldn’t determine why the truck-tractor double trailer that was traveling southbound in the right lane on Interstate 5 moved into the left lane, crossed a 58-foot-wide median, and emerged into the northbound lanes, striking a passenger car and then crashing head-on into the motorcoach. The bus was carrying 42 students and three chaperones on a college tour trip. Dozens were injured, in addition to the 10 people killed.
Hart said event data recorders could have helped investigators identify what caused the crash, but neither the truck-tractor nor the bus was equipped with recorders. The board in the past has urged regulators to develop and implement standards for on-board recording of bus and truck crash data.
“It is troubling that in this report, the NTSB has also had to reiterate several recommendations to NHTSA,” Hart said, nothing that “the investigation brought to light double standards in regulations protecting bus passengers versus passengers in trains and planes.
“A passenger on an airline, for example, receives a safety briefing prior to departure. Fireproofing on airplanes is designed to withstand a major fire. There is emergency evacuation lighting,” he said. “Present regulations require none of these safety protections for motorcoach passengers.”
The American Bus Association has shown support for the inclusion of technologies such as crash avoidance and event data recorder systems. The association, which represents about 1,000 motorcoach companies, said the industry has already taken some steps in line to the panel’s recommendations, including adoption of pre-trip safety briefings and methods to track down their fleets and operations.
ABA spokesman Dan Ronan said many companies show an association video to passengers before taking off on a trip that provide instructions on where the emergency exits are, how to get out of the vehicle, and the proper use of seat-belts. Some companies, he said, have GPS systems to monitor their drivers’ speeds and driving performance.
Beginning next fall, all newly-manufactured buses will be required to be equipped with lap and shoulder belts for each driver and passenger seat, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Ronan said some manufacturers began installing seat-belts on new models six years ago.
Regulators see the use of seatbelts and other safety measures as key to reducing fatalities in one of the most popular modes of travel in the country. On average, 21 motorcoach and large bus occupants are killed and nearly 8,000 are injured every year in motor vehicle crashes, according to federal data. NHTSA said requiring seat belts could reduce fatalities by up to 44 percent.
“We take real seriously the safety of our passengers,” Ronan said. He said the association respects the federal safety recommendations, but ultimately it will up to federal regulators to make those requirements to the industry.
Travel by motorcoach has remained a preferred choice for millions of Americans, second only after the airline industry. Over the Memorial Day weekend, as many as 10 million trips were made on intercity buses, according to industry estimates. In the Washington area, for example, travel by bus to cities like New York has become an attractive alternative to driving, train and air travel. Additionally, as many 1,200 tour buses enter the District daily during the peak tourist season, according to the National Park Service.
In investigating the Northern California crash, federal investigators found critical safety concerns, including a lack of adequate fire performance standards for passenger vehicle interiors, and needs for improving bus design to make emergency evacuations easier.
The NTSB is urging the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require new motorcoach and bus designs to include a secondary door for use as an additional emergency exit. It also said the NHTSA should adopt more rigorous performance standards for interior flammability and smoke emissions, similar to those in use for commercial aviation and rail passenger transportation
On Wednesday, the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents bus drivers across the country, said that while the federal recommendations urged more clearly labeled emergency exits and safety briefings, they don’t address driver fatigue, a top concern in the industry.
“Safety briefings on buses and better signs to show emergency exits aren’t going to address the real cause of these deadly bus accidents,” said Larry Hanley, international president of ATU, which represents workers at Greyhound and other intercity bus companies. “Until Congress deals with bus driver fatigue we will continue to see carnage on the highways.”
The union said that 36 percent of fatalities in motorcoach crashes over the past decade have been attributed to driver fatigue. And over the last decade, three times as many people have been killed in intercity bus accidents than in commercial airline crashes, the union said. The union claims that drivers are paid low wages and often forced to work second jobs and urged legislation to ensure better salaries.
Previous recommendations by the NTSB highlight the need to equip motorcoaches with event data recorders, that emergency exits should be easy to open, that motorcoaches should have emergency lighting fixtures with an independent power source, and that emergency exits should be marked with luminescent or retroreflective material.
“We know from our experience in aviation and rail that such safety recommendations can and do save lives. It is a further tragedy of this accident that these recommendations have never been acted upon,” Hart said.