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Ex-NTSB Chief Confirms Safety Standards Less for Buses

Oct 6, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

While airline crashes tend to get more press, many travelers die in bus and train accidents as well.  Take for instance the recent bus crash in August that killed 17 people who were traveling from Houston to a religious event, or the Atlanta bus accident last year that involved the Bluffton University baseball team or the 2002 Texas bus accident that involved Texas church campers.  

Jim Hall, formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)—Hall chaired the NTSB from 1994 to 2001—agrees that the traveling public is treated to a different standard if they are on a bus instead of an airliner or train.  Further, some of those who died in the two Texas and the Georgia accidents might have survived if a few basic safety propositions, such as seat belts and stronger windows, had been adopted.  "There's a strong safety culture in aviation that has been supported by the aviation community, in which fatalities are unacceptable," Hall said. "That same culture we haven't had on our highways.  I wish I could explain it."

One basic issue in unaddressed bus safety remains why basic recommendations for long-haul buses made years ago have never been implemented.  This lack of action has also confused safety advocates for some forty years.  In 1968 NTSB first announced a recommendation to add seat belts to large nationwide buses; however, today, most buses do not offer seatbelts.

U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (Republican-Texas) and Sherrod Brown (Democrat-Ohio) offered a bill to turn some of those long-standing NTSB recommendations into law.  At a subcommittee hearing last month, Hutchison pointed to a series of "horrific accidents" over the summer that confirmed the need to implement "sweeping changes" to enhance bus safety.  While the law may not immediately pass, it may be reconsidered as part of a highway bill next year.

The motorcoach industry opposes the bill and the American Bus Association (ABA) and other industry groups claim buses are safe just the way they are.  The ABA calls the Hutchison-Brown bill "an industry killer" on its Website citing the expense of adding  safety featues and supports another bill sponsored by U.S. Representative Bill Shuster (Republican-Pennsylvania), that calls for research but no specific changes.

The NTSB is the agency that investigates serious transportation crashes and issues and has been the most persistent in calling for safety improvements such as:  Three-point seat belts, stronger windows, stronger roofs, heat sensors, fire suppression devices, stronger driver certification requirements, training, and more vigorous inspection and monitoring of bus companies.  Hall, other safety advocates, crash victims and their families, politicians, and plaintiff lawyers all blame a cowardly federal bureaucracy and a motorcoach industry that, they say, has fought changes for years.  "You have years of delay and dithering by the (U.S.) Department of Transportation, and you have an industry that has been a partner with them in not wanting to do anything," said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.


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