NTSB chief: Technology could prevent bus accidents

Posted March 30, 2011, at 11:43 p.m.

WASHINGTON  — The technology exists to prevent many bus crashes and to make it more likely passengers will survive those that do occur, but government regulators have failed to implement safety recommendations that in some cases stretch back decades, safety advocates told a Senate panel on Wednesday.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said her five-year-old minivan has more advanced safety technology than many large buses, also known as motor coaches.

“The technology does exist and it’s important that it be applied to the vehicles most in need of it,” Hersman told a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s transportation subcommittee. She cited adaptive cruise control, which adjusts a vehicle’s speed to traffic conditions, and electronic stability control, which helps prevent rollovers, as two examples of  technologies commonly found in cars but not required for buses.

Ron Medford, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said his agency plans to issue new bus safety standards but needs more time to craft the regulations.

“We are dedicated to getting this done as fast as we can,” Medford said. “But we want to base it on good science and good engineering.”

Deadly bus crashes over the past decade have claimed dozens of lives, including college baseball players in Atlanta, Vietnamese Catholics in Texas, skiers in Utah and this month gamblers returning to New York’s Chinatown.

The New York accident, which killed 15 passengers and critically injured several others, as well as recent bus accidents in New Hampshire and New Jersey, have rekindled interest in bipartisan legislation that would require regulators to act on longstanding NTSB bus safety recommendations.

The recommendations include requiring seat belts for all passengers and electric onboard recorders that keep track of how many hours a driver has been behind the wheel.

The NTSB also has urged that buses have stronger roofs that aren’t easily crushed or sheared off to prevent passengers from being ejected in a rollover and to ensure they have enough space inside to survive. The board wants bus windows to be glazed using new, more advanced methods so they hold together even when shattered. And the board wants windows and exits that are easier for passengers to open.

Mike Cyr, motor coach operations manager at Cyr Bus Lines in Old Town, said Wednesday that his company has long been prepared for any new legislation or regulations that could result from the recommendations being discussed in Washington.

Cyr, who oversees about 20 motor coaches that travel to destinations on the East Coast and Canada, said even though he had heard little about the recent efforts to improve bus safety, his company is already making investments in safety equipment.

Cyr Bus Lines has already purchased and installed several electric onboard recorders from different vendors, Cyr said. So if the company is required by law to install such devices on all of its buses, it will know which is the best and most cost-effective, he said.

Both management and drivers with Cyr Bus Lines also assume inspections will take place on a regular basis, Cyr said. The company has passed a number of inspections in places such as Atlantic City and New York City. Cyr also said his buses passed a Maine Department of Transportation inspection last summer. He said the company performed well when inspectors examined log books, maintenance records and the overall condition of each bus.

“We welcome the changes, but there is already a lot of overhead in this business,” said Cyr.  “I just hope if they plan on requiring these things all at once, they weigh the costs to our companies. … Those costs could be passed to our customers.”

About half of all motor coach fatalities in recent years have occurred as the result of rollovers, and about 70 percent of those killed in rollover accidents were ejected from the bus, according to the Transportation Department.

“If the regulatory agency had moved on their rulemakings, or the Congress had required these things to be done, we might have been able to prevent some of these fatalities,” Hersman told The Associated Press.

The families of victims said they share Hersman’s frustration.

“It just seems to us that four years is long enough to wait on such simple, straightforward legislation that needs to be enacted,” said John Betts of Bryan, Ohio, whose son, David, was among five Bluffton University baseball players killed in 2007 when their bus careered over an Atlanta highway overpass.

In November 2009, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released a plan for issuing regulations that address many of the NTSB recommendations. The only recommendation that has been fully implemented is a ban on texting by bus and truck drivers. The department also has proposed rules requiring seatbelts for all bus passengers and electric onboard recorders, and a ban on handheld cellphone use by bus and truck drivers while driving. Those rules have not been made final.

The department said Wednesday that it was suspending the interstate operating authority of Super Luxury Tours Inc. of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. One of the company’s buses crashed earlier this month on the New Jersey Turnpike, killing the driver and one passenger and injuring several other passengers.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who chaired the hearing, said Super Luxury’s safety record placed it in the bottom 1 percent of motor coach operators. Federal records show the company had been flagged by safety officials for extra scrutiny due to a higher than average number of violations. It had also been cited for hiring drivers who don’t speak English.

Also on Wednesday, LaHood said the department, working with police agencies in 13 states, was conducting surprise bus inspections at popular tourist destinations. He also announced new bus driver testing standards to ensure uniformity across state licensing agencies and to reduce the likelihood of licensing and testing fraud. The regulations will also require new drivers to obtain a commercial learner’s permit before obtaining a commercial driver’s license.

Writing in his blog, LaHood promised the department will issue new, mandatory training standards for entry level commercial bus drivers by this fall.

Defining what kind of training a driver must have before obtaining a commercial driver’s license and improving testing standards for drivers has been an especially thorny issue. Congress has been pressing for the development of driver training and testing standards for 20 years. The department began working on new rules in 1993 and issued the rules in 2004. But those rules were successfully challenged in court as too weak and at odds with the department’s own safety data.

The Transportation Department has been working on the latest round of driver training and testing regulations for nearly six years.

The NTSB said 60 percent of the fatal motor coach crashes the board investigated over a 12-year period were the result of problems related to the driver.

Administration officials point out that LaHood has significantly stepped up enforcement of bus safety regulations compared to eight years of inaction during the Bush administration. During the last three years, the department has placed 75 motorcoach carriers out-of-service for safety violations.  During the three years previous, only 46 carriers had been shut down.

The American Bus Association estimates the cost of implementing the recommendations for new buses at as much as $89,000 per vehicle. A typical new motor coach costs about $500,000.

Joan Claybrook, former chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that estimate is significantly inflated. The actual cost, she said, amounts to about a nickel per bus ticket.

There are about 750 million passenger trips a year on motor coaches in the U.S., the bus association said.

Jamison Cocklin of the BDN staff contributed to this report.

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