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Friday, August 18, 2006

Government Faulted for Unsafe Buses

Washington Hearing Blames Feds for Bus Safety Oversights That Led to Texas Bus Fire that Claimed 23 People

During a Washington hearing into a bus fire than killed 23 nursing home residents in Texas, safety investigators were told that the government has failed to make sure charter buses are safe to ride.

The bus company in question, Global Limo Inc. of Pharr, Texas, had numerous safety violations in 2002 and 2004, including maintenance failures, fake records and a poor drug and alcohol-testing program.

At the time of the accident, limited resources hindered the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to improve its safety oversight, according to the director of the agency's Office of Safety Programs William Quade.

"Today that would not happen," Quade testified before the National Transportation Safety Board.

The accident that killed 23 frail and elderly nursing home residents fleeing Hurricane Rita on Sept. 23, 2005 has spurred the NTSB to begin scrutinizing state and federal oversights of motor coach companies.

It is thought that an overheated bearing in the rear wheel well caused the accident, most likely the result of poor maintenance, investigators said. The tire caught fire and the blaze engulfed the bus, causing the oxygen canisters to explode.

But it took authorities two weeks after the accident to discover that the conditions of Global Limo’s vehicles and drivers were "likely to result in serious injury or death," and shut down the company.

Chairwoman of the hearings, NTSB member Kitty Higgins, stated that although the company was founded in the 1980s, the federal government did not review it for safety problems until 2004. She asked, "How could a company go 24 years without a review?"

Health care organizations that help evacuate disabled people, and the broker who hired the bus company for the evacuation, were shocked to learn about the oversight of motor coach companies that was exposed by the tragic accident.

If the federal government doesn't make sure the vehicles are safe, then "you're asking a person who provides health care to inspect the bus," according to Hilary Styron, director of the Emergency Preparedness Initiative for the National Organization on Disability.

A similar complaint was made by the bus broker that hired the bus company to evacuate residents of the Brighton Gardens Nursing Home in Bellaire, a community of Houston.

According to Bill Maulsby, chief executive of The BusBank, the broker used by the nursing home, "There was never any indication that this bus was unsafe."

"We're not safety experts," he said. "We clearly need to depend on the federal government."

Checking the federal safety rating is an important way to evaluate a bus company, Maulsby said. He estimates that of the more than 1,000 bus companies that BusBank works with, less than 10 percent have been given a safety rating by the motor coach safety administration.

Quade said the motor coach safety administration has been making progress to catch up on safety audits. There are 32,000 buses that are operated by 3,600 interstate motor coach companies. Last year, federal or state regulators inspected 17,000 buses, up from 12,000 the year before, Quade said.

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