Poor signage cited in fatal Bluffton bus crash

Congress needs to act to prevent another tragedy, father says

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 9:11 AM
Updated: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 12:25 PM

By Jonathan Riskind

-- The fatal Bluffton University baseball team bus crash is a tragedy that could have been avoided.
That's the conclusion reached this morning by the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board as the federal agency met to discuss its final findings of the causes of the March 2, 2007, crash in Atlanta that killed five Bluffton baseball players as well as the motorcoach's driver and his wife.
Driver Jerome Niemeyer, 65, made some mistakes, such as erring in not properly following what signs there were and failing to slow as he came up what was an exit ramp, and his age also may have figured into the errors, the board found. Other accidents in that location also involved older drivers. Although the wreck occurred around 5:30 a.m., driver fatigue was likely not a factor, investigators concluded.
But poor signage marking an I-75 High Occupancy Vehicle left exit lane should have been fixed after years of accidents - two fatal before the Bluffton crash - showed that drivers not familiar with the area could make the error of thinking they were in a through lane, said Mark V. Rosenker, NTSB chairman. He noted that all the accidents, nine since 1997 including the Bluffton crash, involved drivers from out of state or not from the Atlanta area.
It was an "accident that didn't have to happen," Rosenker said after listening to staff members outline the accident and the highway signs up at the time. "Had the appropriate investigations been done at the state level we might not be here today."
The transportation board's report says that many signage improvements have been made, but notes that more might be needed, including advisory exit speed limits and more pavement markings to delineate the exit lane from the through lane.
The meeting was expected to address issues of bus occupant safety systems this afternoon.
As he prepared to listen this morning to a report on the causes of the bus crash that killed his son, David, and four other Bluffton University baseball players last year, John Betts said he already knew what to expect.
But the only thing that will really make a difference in the future when it comes to saving lives is bipartisan legislation co-authored by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a bill that has been sitting in a Senate committee for months, said Betts, 56, of Bryan, Ohio.
Betts, wearing a Bluffton baseball cap and a button with a photo of his son, talked to reporters before the safety board met to discuss its conclusions.
The NTSB for years has been urging federal regulators to force the motorcoach industry to adopt a wide variety of safety measures that might protect passengers from the deaths and injuries suffered by the Northwest Ohio university's baseball team when their bus plummeted off a bridge wall and dropped 19 feet onto the southbound lanes of the interstate.
Betts said he knew the board also will be talking about driver performance and the signage problems at the exit. But it is the occupant safety issues that he is most concerned about.
Years of recommendations by the safety board for motorcoach safety changes that could have prevented his son and others from being killed have not been put into effect by federal regulators or the industry, and won't unless Brown's bill – also co-authored by GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas – is passed and signed into law, Betts said.
"If they implemented this stuff he would be alive today," Betts said.
Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, agreed with Betts.
"They (the industry) will respond to mandates," Donaldson said.
Unless Brown's legislation is passed, only a "patchwork" and inadequate safety system will be in place, he added.
Brown's bill, the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act, makes changes such as the seatbelt, window and roof requirements. It also calls for stability technology to prevent rollovers, and other measures aiming to prevent fires and aid passenger evacuation. It also mandates stricter federal and state oversight of motorcoach operators.
The motorcoach industry says safety is its top priority, but says more study is needed before Brown's legislation should be enacted.
An American Bus Association release handed out during the meeting says that "sound science must guide policy. The government must conduct rigorous research with adequate funding. Savings lives cannot be based on a price tag."
The bus association says it supports a different bill, one that would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct a motorcoach safety study to decide on the best way to protect occupants.

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