Feds clamp down on bus industry
By BY GABE SEMENZA
May 12, 2011 at 12:12 a.m.
Updated May 13, 2011 at 12:13 a.m.
Wednesday's fatal Victoria bus crash occurred at a telling time - just hours after a two-day national forum on bus safety ended.
This near-parallel occurrence highlights this: Fatal U.S. bus crashes increased greatly since 1999 and this alarming trend is under intense federal scrutiny.
Initial law enforcement reports show that neither a faulty bus nor the bus driver were to blame for Wednesday's crash, which killed one woman and injured more than a dozen others.
The crash occurred just outside Victoria on U.S. Highway 77 South near Fleming Prairie Road.
"We know crashes are going to happen, but what can we do to protect the occupants?" said Rob Molloy, a National Traffic Safety Board spokesman, in a telephone interview.
The traffic safety board hosted this week's Washington D.C. national forum, which featured federal regulators, safety experts and members of the commercial truck and bus industries. They discussed progress to safety during the past decade, and ways to improve.
Federal authorities have since 2008 ramped up studies of bus crashes to curb injuries and deaths.
In January of that year, a Victoria bus crash killed one man and sent more than 40 to the hospital; a few days later, eight passengers died and 20 were injured in a similar bus crash in Utah. Later that year, 17 died in a crash north of Dallas.
The U.S. commercial bus industry caters to more than 750 million passengers each year - more than airlines and Amtrak combined. Even though deadly crashes are rare by those numbers, they increased from an average of 10 or fewer per year before 1999 to 25 per year in the decade that followed.
Of all motor coach deaths from 1999 to 2008, most were attributable to companies deemed unsafe or to operate illegally, according to the American Bus Association.
"We need to give those illegal operators no place to hide," said Norm Littler, the bus association's vice president, in a telephone interview. "I think there is a way to pin these guys down."
For decades, buses were thought to be safe simply because of their size, despite a 1968 and 1999 plea by the traffic safety board for stricter passenger protections.
Ever-increasing rollovers and ejections, as well as deaths caused by injuries inside the bus, led federal authorities to reconsider regulations.
Since 2008, for example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates bus design, conducted its first crash test.
"With that data, they're moving forward on occupant protections: Improving roof and window strength," said Molloy, the traffic safety board spokesman.
Additionally, federal authorities have:
Added ratings categories, such as driver health, to better monitor the 3,600 U.S. bus companies.
Created an undisclosed algorithm to vet new bus companies. Many companies simply change their names to avoid being shut down based on repeated violations.
Begun performing compliance reviews on every company in a national database.
Since these efforts were enacted, fatal bus crashes have declined, Molloy said.
During this week's forum, federal agencies also looked to the future for even better ways to improve. Agencies reviewed burgeoning technology such as collision warning systems, electronic stability controls and an airplane-styled black box.
They discussed studies that show the actions and driving record of the people behind the wheel can predict future crashes. Therefore, a newfound emphasis could be placed on initial and continuous driver training.
Bus inspection points might move from weigh stations to pick-up and destination points, two locations unsafe or illegally-operated companies and drivers can't skirt.
Maybe most importantly, three-point passenger seatbelts might be required for all buses via law to be considered later this year.
For three years, many newly built buses included seat belts, but the cost of retrofitting older models kept companies from decking out the entire fleet.
"For decades now, we have known it's proven without question that motor vehicles are safer when occupants are restrained," said Jim Cole, a Victoria lawyer who represented a 2008 bus crash victim. "It just makes no sense that all buses don't have seat belts."
Most bus crash deaths occur to passengers who were ejected, Littler said. Despite the potential of a seat belt installation law, no law currently requires passengers to wear them.