While headed to a football game last weekend, more than a dozen members of the Morehouse College "House of Funk" marching band were injured in a crash on Interstate 75 south of Atlanta. Not one of them was wearing a seat belt, as the vehicle lacked passenger restraints of any kind, along with many other common safety features.
That's because they were riding on a bus - or what the industry calls a motorcoach - which is not required to have safety belts or crash-resistant roofs or many other protective features U.S. consumers now take for granted in their cars and trucks.
The Morehouse students were fortunate that no one was killed in the rollover accident, but others have not been so lucky. Last year, 17 people were killed and 39 injured when a motorcoach was driven off an overpass on U.S. 75 near Sherman, Texas. Since that Aug. 8, 2008 disaster, there have been at least 42 more bus crashes and fires elsewhere in the U.S.
Each year, the nation's buses provide transportation to more than 600 million passengers, and ridership is rising, particularly as the cost and headaches associated with airline travel grow. Yet Congress has failed to act on National Transportation Safety Board recommendations to improve the industry's safety standards.
That buses lack seat belts is a particularly egregious example of neglect, as rollover crashes are a major cause of bus passenger fatalities. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 70 percent of occupant deaths in bus crashes were the result of ejection from the vehicle.
Glazed windows that are less easily broken in a crash would also be helpful in this regard. So would stronger, crush-resistant roofs.
Tougher standards are needed to ensure that bus drivers are in good physical shape and receive adequate training. NTSB has found drivers involved in severe crashes have sometimes had medical conditions that impaired that ability to drive safely but which were not previously detected.
Also troubling is the way some motorcoach companies with a history of safety violations have been able to "reincarnate" by re-registering under a new name to avoid enforcement actions, a pattern identified by the Government Accountability Office in a July report. The company that owned the bus involved in the Sherman crash had been ordered out of service two months earlier.
Last year, about 300 people died in bus crashes in the U.S. That is a small number compared to the thousands killed in car accidents, but it could be made substantially lower at a relatively small cost if Congress would pass the necessary safety legislation.
Improved crash-worthiness, better driver training and testing, closer oversight of bus companies, requiring event data recorders, fire suppression systems and other safety features all are included in the pending legislation. The measure would also provide a tax credit of up to $45,000 to help companies either upgrade an existing bus or purchase a replacement built to the higher standards.
Many of these requirements would be phased in over time, a reasonable approach given the costs. But Congress needs to act soon because any additional delay will inevitably lead to more lives lost. Buses may never meet the elaborate safety standards of passenger jets, but they ought to be held to at least the same minimum requirements as their fellow vehicles on the road.
If they have to replace their fleet of buses and purchase ones outfitted with all the bells and whistles you want, they'll go broke. I would concentrate on the bus drivers. Most of these accidents occur due to human error - tired bus drivers sleeping at the wheel or poorly trained or inexperienced ones speeding carelessly through bad terrain and wet weather have been implicated in the past. If the government listens to you, then I can forget about a ticket on the Deluxe Dragon Chinatown bus to New York costing me less than $30.
Big Apple fan