2 years after Bluffton University bus crash, efforts to make motorcoaches safer move slowly
Posted by Stephen Koff/Plain Dealer Bureau Chief
April 05, 2009
A charter bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team rests on its side after plunging off a highway ramp two years ago in Georgia. Of the 36 people on board, seven were killed. Rules designed to improve motorcoach safety and avoid such deaths have stalled in Congress.
WASHINGTON -- More than two years after a charter bus plunged off a freeway overpass in Georgia, killing the driver, his wife and five members of the baseball team from Ohio's Bluffton University, federal regulators and Congress have yet to require seat belts and other safety measures that investigators say would save lives.
Since the Bluffton crash, federal authorities have investigated seven more bus accidents with at least 37 passenger deaths, all caused in rollover accidents. Most of those killed were ejected from their seats.
"That bus overturns, someone is going to die," said John Betts of Bryan, Ohio, whose son David, a 20-year-old Bluffton sophomore, was ejected and died in the March 2, 2007, crash. "That's not a passion statement, that's a fact."
The lack of safety belts in motorcoaches not only departs from the practices of the European Union, which requires lap belts at a minimum, and Australia, which mandates that all new motorcoaches have lap and shoulder belts. It also runs counter to four decades of recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, which investigates crashes in the United States.
But the NTSB can only pass along its recommendations to others in the U.S. Department of Transportation. It lacks the authority to impose rules. Another federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has that power, and some members of Congress, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, are trying to make the latter agency use it. But so far, the traffic safety administration has taken an exceedingly slow approach that safety advocates and investigators find maddening.
"It does frustrate us," Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the NTSB, told The Plain Dealer. He said that time and experience have shown that his agency's recommendations, dating as far back as 1968, "would go a long way to certainly saving lives as it relates to motorcoach passenger ejection. It would go a long way to mitigating even injury."
The lack of safety belts also stands apart from a little-publicized but potentially groundbreaking new practice by Greyhound, this country's leading interstate bus carrier. Greyhound is installing what experts believe to be safer seats, with an improved design to minimize injuries if a passenger should strike the seat in front of him -- and with lap and shoulder belts -- in 140 new buses.
"In every platform where lap and shoulder belts have been introduced, injuries and fatalities have been reduced by 45 percent," said James Johnson, director of corporate sales at IMMI, an Indiana company that conducted and analyzed seat testing and is supplying Greyhound's new seats. "We expect to see the same thing with motorcoaches."
The charter-bus industry says that bus travel is extremely safe, especially when the number of people traveling by bus -- 631 million passengers a year -- is factored in. The American Bus Association uses a figure to show that motorcoach passengers are much safer than travelers in any other mode of transportation, although critics say that claim is grossly inflated.
Industry managers and spokesmen in fact applaud the slow pace of safety regulation, saying a cautious approach will lead to sound, scientifically backed regulations if warranted, rather than feel-good measures that do little to keep passengers safe.
"I think if you were to ask anybody, everybody would want to make sure that the direction we move in is based on good science, it does not ultimately result in unintended consequences, and that we have good, solid research that we can rely on to know that we are complementing existing safety structures and not creating some kind of adverse consequence that was not anticipated," said Jackie Glassman, a Washington attorney. Glassman works with the bus industry and is a former acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
To safety advocacy and consumer groups, however, the sound-science argument seems like an excuse for delays.
"If you decide to fly, you're covered by the best, strongest safety standards," said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of the nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "We lead the world in safety standards. Yet if you get on a bus, it's like you're second-class citizens."
Betts, the Bluffton father, agrees, noting that Australia has practically eliminated deaths on over-the-road buses in the last decade. "We should be leading the world in safety," he said, "not following."
Rules always delayed
About 5:40 a.m. on March 2, 2007, a charter bus driver carrying 33 baseball players and coaches from Bluffton, a small private college south of Toledo, mistakenly exited the left high-occupancy-vehicle-only lane on Interstate 75 in Atlanta. Investigators said the driver apparently thought he was pulling onto another high-speed interstate lane.
The bus came to a "T" intersection at the end of the exit ramp at 50 to 60 mph. Failing to successfully make the turn, it vaulted a concrete bridge rail over I-75.
Four passengers went through the windshield or left front side windows even before the motorcoach left the roadway, according to investigative reports. Six others were thrown through the left side windows when the vehicle landed on its driver's side, 19 feet below. Two were partially ejected and trapped between the bus and roadway.
None of the 59 seats on board had shoulder harnesses, and only the driver's seat, the "jump seat" and the first row of two passenger seats immediately behind the driver had lap belts. The driver and his wife had fastened their lap belts.
There have been deadlier crashes since then, including one in Mexican Hat, Utah, in January 2008, when a bus carrying passengers from a ski trip plunged down an embankment, killing nine passengers and injuring 42 -- and ejecting 50 from their seats, according to the NTSB.
Last August in rural Texas, a motorcoach carrying Vietnamese church members went over a guardrail and plummeted into a dry creek bed, killing 17 people and injuring 38. And on Jan. 30 this year, a tour bus crashed in northwestern Arizona, killing seven tourists and injuring 10 after it veered across a highway and flipped on its side.
The NTSB for years has recommended installing seat and shoulder belts, improving window glazing to keep passengers from being ejected during a crash, and strengthening bus roofs for protection against crushing during rollovers. Brown, the Democratic senator from Ohio, along with Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia this year reintroduced a bill they launched in 2007 to mandate the improvements.
But many in the bus industry say there may be other ways to improve safety, and they point to cost estimates as high as $20,000 per bus for seats designed to have seat belts -- a prohibitive sum, some say, for small charter companies.
"Is the driver responsible for everyone being seat-belted in?" asked Ben Bolog, vice president and director of operations at A&M Transit Lines, of Alliance, Ohio. Drivers have enough to do already, industry managers say.
"We don't have stewardesses," said Thomas Goebel, general manager of Lakefront Lines in Brook Park, with 106 over-the-road motorcoaches. And on overnight trips, passengers are likely to take off their belts and stretch out across unoccupied seats, just as many do on long plane flights.
"So will it be worn?" Goebel asked. "That is the big question to me, because putting a seat belt on a bus and nobody using it would be a big waste of money."
Clyde Hart, a former government safety official who is now senior vice president of government affairs for the American Bus Association, said better highway signs and roadway design might have prevented the Bluffton team accident. The NTSB cited the confusing roadway as well. But it also noted that seat belts could have protected passengers once the crash occurred.
A different bill in Congress, first sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul Gillmor of Old Fort, Ohio, before his death in 2007, and then championed by Republican Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, would require safer buses -- but only if highway safety association research first proved they were warranted. The less-restrictive bill would also give bus companies more time to install the improvements.
The bus industry backs the Shuster bill. But everyone agrees that neither bill is likely to pass. Instead, the proposed legislation could wind up in a broader bill that lays out the nation's road and transportation priorities.
The timing is unsettled, and the extensive highway and bridge projects already approved in President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package could push back the urgency of a new transportation bill. Brown said he is nevertheless optimistic.
"The need is great, the safety features will save lives, and the cost will be less than the industry says it will be," Brown said.
Gene Blythe/Associated Press
Rescue workers inspect the aftermath of a bus crash that killed five members of the Bluffton University baseball team in Georgia two years ago. Today, federal regulators and Congress still cannot agree on what to do to improve motorcoach safety.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for all manner of highway safety, and the most pressing issues tend to get the most attention. Motorcoach safety has not been among them, although in the 1970s, the association looked at seat belts -- and decided passengers wouldn't wear them.
Critics say the agency needs a fresh push.
"If you don't have a deadline" imposed by Congress, "NHTSA will drag its heels for years and years," said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Agency spokesman Rae Tyson says that the association takes bus safety "very seriously, but we can't just take NTSB recommendations and rubber-stamp them. We can't just promulgate a regulation because it sounds good. It has to be based on sound scientific research."
As the chorus grew louder for motorcoach safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Dec. 14, 2007, crashed a 54-seat passenger bus filled with test dummies into a rigid barrier at 30 mph. This occurred at a testing center in East Liberty, Ohio.
Two months later in Wisconsin, the administration put large buses on giant "sleds" that it tipped to simulate a rollover crash. It now is analyzing the data.
In the front-end crash, unbelted dummies were thrown around the bus. Dummies with lap belts but no shoulder belts experienced high head "acceleration and neck loads," while dummies with shoulder belts did not, according to agency data.
"Lap belts alone in the crash test we did actually led to increased injuries for some of the occupants," said Tyson, the agency's spokesman. "That's precisely the sort of unintended consequence that we're trying to avoid. That's why sometimes, although it seems pretty simple to require things like belts, there actually might be a more complex undertaking than people realize."
Some of that data have already been used by IMMI, however, in its new seating systems for Greyhound, a bus line that has been sued and criticized before for lacking safety belts. The fact that Greyhound went ahead without a government requirement has even industry critics believing that the change is inevitable.
But at what cost? The American Bus Association's Hart, citing the estimate of $15,000 to $20,000 per bus, said, "I don't know if you can ever recoup that."
Said IMMI's Johnson, providing the seats for Greyhound at what he says is $10,000 to $12,000 for each new bus: "One accident, and you've paid for your entire fleet."
John and Joy Betts talk to reporters last year in Washington, D.C., where they attended a meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board. John Betts, of Bryan, Ohio, whose son David died in the March 2, 2007, bus crash in Georgia that killed five members of the Bluffton University baseball team, has been pushing for stronger bus safety regulations since the crash.