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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Poorly Placed Signs to Blame in Tragic Georgia Bus Crash

Authorities Also Place Blame on Bus Driver

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the Georgia Department of Transportation is to be blamed for an Atlanta bus crash last year that killed five college baseball players.

The NTSB said confusing highway signs were a primary cause. The board also cited driver error and a lack of safety features such as seat belts as key factors, fueling calls for tougher standards on U.S. bus operators.

Investigators said the bus driver in the March 2 tragedy believed he was staying in an HOV lane when he drove onto an elevated exit ramp, smashing through a stop sign at highway speed and hurtling from an overpass back onto the interstate below. Five members of Ohio's Bluffton University baseball team, along with the driver and his wife, perished. Another 28 people were injured in the crash.

Georgia officials altered the initial design of the exit signs after having trouble mounting them, according to NTSB investigators. The change was not in accordance with federal guidance on pairing some exit signs together to make them clearer, but it did not amount to a violation of federal regulations, which make room for some exceptions.

It was "an accident that didn't have to happen," said NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenke.

Although no fatalities were reported at the accident site in the decade years before HOV lanes were introduced in the mid-1990s, there have been three fatal wrecks in the ten years since, the board said.

"Had the appropriate investigation been done at the state level we might not be here today," added Rosenker.

In a statement, Georgia DOT Commissioner Gena Abraham said that the agency "heard quite clearly" the NTSB recommendations, which included demands for the state to further improve the Interstate 75 interchange.

"We do understand. We are going to consider every option put before us," Abraham said.

Georgia DOT has said no complaints were logged about the interchange before the crash, despite police reports claiming that three drivers who had earlier wrecks at the site said they misread signs and were not aware they had left the HOV lane before they crashed.

Recently, the NTSB advised that the Federal Highway Administration proceed with a proposal announced after the bus crash to require clearer, more consistent signs at similar traffic configurations around the country. Georgia has made some improvements at the crash site already.

The 65-year-old bus driver, Jerome Niemeyer, was also at fault, investigators said. His record was good, and he had been driving for only an hour before the early-morning crash. However his medical certificate, which is required by law, had recently expired.

The outdated certification was just one of many violations the board found at the now-defunct bus operator, Executive Coach Luxury Travel Inc., based in Ottawa, Ohio.

But they uncovered no evidence that fatigue or medical problems were factors in the crash. Instead, the driver just "missed what route guidance was available" and neglected to brake as he came up the exit ramp, despite two signs notifying drivers of a stop ahead, investigator Deborah Bruce said.

Further frustrating the NTSB were federal regulators, who have not acted on its long-standing recommendations for improved safety features on buses. The NTSB has called for seat belts or other passenger restraints such as shatterproof windows and stronger roofs since a 1968 head-on collision involving a Greyhound bus killed 19 passengers near Baker, California.

But the Transportation Department has not implemented the recommendations, and Congress has remained silent as the bus industry has invested heavily in lobbying against costly new standards.

Industry officials remain steadfast that buses are among the safest forms of travel and that further crash test data is needed before the government takes action.

But parents of the crash victims - several of whom were in attendance at the meeting in Washington - have used the accident to campaign for tougher regulations.

They are urging bipartisan legislation introduced after the wreck by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, that would force regulators to act. Currently, the bill is stuck in committee.

John Betts, whose son, David, perished in the crash, said if the NTSB's proposals had been adopted, "our sons would be alive today."

"That's not a wish. That's not a fantasy. That's a fact," he said. "The apathy has gone on too long. These recommendations were made 40 years ago."

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