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Friday, April 06, 2007

Tougher Bus Safety Rules Called for In Wake of Tragic Accidents

Stronger Roofs, Shatterproof Windows, More Emergency Exits and Side Impact and Rollover Protective Systems Might Have Prevented Deaths

According to the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, if safety recommendations made eight years ago had been heeded, some lives lost in the Atlanta crash of a bus carrying an Ohio baseball team may have been spared.

Seven people died in the horrific accident, including the bus driver, his wife, and five students.

"Although this accident occurred only 18 days ago, we know from past experience that one of the major issues is likely to be the crash worthiness of the motor coach," said Mark V. Rosenker to the House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Motor Coach Safety. He said faulty highway design might also have been a factor.

According to Rosenker's testimony, some of the occupants were ejected or partially ejected from the vehicle. "We know from past investigations that keeping occupants within the vehicle is paramount to their protection," he said.

Rosenker said that in 1999, his agency advised the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to approve several measures to ensure the safety of motor coach passengers. The measures included more sturdy bus roofs, protective window glazing or shatterproof windows to prevent passenger ejections, easy-to-open window and roof emergency exits and protective systems to better protect travelers in side impacts and rollovers.

Not one of these recommendations has been put in place, Rosenker said.

Rosenker added that it has been proven in similar accidents that these safety measures are needed. He further promised that "there will be no shortcuts" in his agency's investigation of the Atlanta crash where early blame has been pointed toward a confusing left-hand exit from a HOV lane on I-75.

Rosenker said that if a "glaring" safety defect is discovered before the investigation is finalized, "we will make an urgent recommendation" on immediately changing it. Such a "glaring" defect might be a faulty highway design. Part of the NTSB investigating team will be made up of highway engineers.

In the early morning crash, a chartered bus transporting a baseball team from Bluffton University in Ohio to a tournament in Florida dove off an overpass onto the expressway below. The subcommittee called the oversight hearing on motor coach safety in the wake of the Atlanta crash and more tragic bus disasters, including the 2005 catastrophe near Houston where 23 elderly occupants died in a bus fire while evacuating from the path of Hurricane Rita.

John Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, testified that "preliminary investigations seem to indicate that the motor coach driver mistook a High Occupancy Vehicle exit ramp for a traffic lane and did not stop at the top of the ramp."

Hill said that bus involved in the crash, owned by the Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc., had been inspected one week prior to the accident by the Public Utility Commission of Ohio.

The preliminary investigation shows the driver did not violate regulations for total hours of service, and no vehicle violations were found. The driver who was killed relieved the previous driver and boarded the bus at roughly one hour before the crash.

Jaqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition of consumer, insurance, medical and safety groups that lobbies for state and federal policies promoting safer streets and motor vehicles, criticized the HOV lane exit.

"There are major issues involving highway design in this crash, including a left hand exit lane with inadequate signing," Gillan testified, adding that the "bridge parapet was incapable of restraining a heavy commercial vehicle."

She also criticized the lack of federal action on making buses more crash worthy. Due to safety deficiencies that should have been corrected after the 1999 recommendations, passengers were ejected through side windows and the windshield in the tragic Georgia crash.

Rosenker, under questioning by subcommittee chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), testified that research into whether seatbelts might have saved lives or prevented serious injuries in such bus crashes is inconclusive.

"The jury is still out," Rosenker said, explaining that while seatbelts in cars are known to save lives, the "larger compartment" of a bus has different dynamics and may require different features.

He testified that it would be hazardous to "retro fit" buses with seatbelts, adding that airbags, including on the sides of the buses, may prove to be a better safety solution.

"In addition, the vehicle itself must be strong enough to prevent intrusion into the occupant compartment," he testified. "Finally, the seats, side panels and other surfaces need to absorb energy when impacted by occupants in the crash scenario. When all these concepts work together, it greatly increases the occupants' chance of survival.

"Surviving an accident depends on many factors," he testified. "The structural integrity of the vehicle and passenger compartments, seat design and restraint systems can all increase a person's likelihood of surviving a crash."

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