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Bus Crash Investigation Brings Calls for Stronger Safety Regulations

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Stock photo: BusA hearing Tuesday which revealed that speed was the likely cause of a deadly 2008 bus crash in Southern Utah has prompted bus safety advocates and government investigators to call for increased federal regulation of the rapidly growing U.S. commercial bus industry.

The crash on January 6, 2008 happened on a tiny two-lane road near the town of Mexican Hat in the Four Corners area of Utah.

The bus, which was ferrying 56 people home from a ski trip in Telluride, Colorado, drifted into the guardrail then plunged off an embankment.

The roof sheared off and most of the passengers were ejected. Nine were killed and 43 injured, some severely.

At yesterday’s hearing at the headquarters of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington, federal investigators said that speed and driver fatigue were the probable causes of the crash. The 71-year-old driver was estimated to have been driving between 88 and 92 miles per hour at the time of the crash, and may have also been suffering from a head cold and altitude sickness. He told people before the bus set off that night that he was not feeling well.

Stock Bus photoIn addition to releasing their findings about the Mexican Hat crash, the NTSB also made new safety recommendations to federal and state agencies, and criticized the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for failing to implement prior safety recommendations that were made almost 10 years ago.

In 1999 the NTSB recommended that motor coach roofs be strengthened, a move that may have prevented the passengers from being ejected in the Mexican Hat crash. The NTSB also suggested that buses install easy-to-open windows and seat belts, which also may have saved many lives in that crash and others.

It’s calculated that 401 people died in over 57,000 motor coach crashes between 2000 and 2007, and the fatalities continue to pile up. Just since last August there have been three horrific roll-over bus accidents in Missouri, Arizona and Lake Tahoe, in which a total of 25 people were killed.

Bus industry representatives defend their safety record, noting that travel by motor coach is statistically much safer than traveling by car. It’s estimated that 30 to 50 people die each year in bus accidents, whereas more than 47,000 die in car accidents. The NHTSA also defends its timetable, saying that it makes decisions based on research backed by scientific studies, which take time to complete.

Bus InteriorBut safety advocates note that motor coaches could be a lot safer if bus owners were required to comply with rules such as those in the European Union and Australia, where buses must be equipped with seat belts. American motor coaches also don’t take advantage of stability-control technology that could prevent roll-over crashes, which are responsible for the majority of fatalities.

Bus travel has increased by 3 to 5 percent a year for the last few years, partly in response to the declining fortunes of the airline industry. The cheap ticket prices and abundant connections between smaller cities fill the gap that has been opened by airlines, many of which have stopped flying shorter regional routes over the last year or two.

Every year more than 34,000 commercial buses transport 750 million passengers in the United States and Canada, which is almost equivalent to the number of people who fly on commercial airlines. However, the airline industry is one of the most highly regulated in the country, while the bus industry has been relatively free-wheeling and unregulated for the past 40 years.

Some attempts have been made in Congress to increase federal oversight of bus safety. After a deadly 2007 crash in which several members of a university baseball team were killed when their bus plunged off an Atlanta overpass, two members of the U.S. Senate introduced legislation to overhaul motor coach safety, but the bill died in committee.

A new version of the bill was reintroduced into Congress last March on the two-year anniversary of the crash, but it is unknown if it will be successful this time around.

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

Related links: Associated Press, Washington Post, Deseret News, WKYC, Dallas Morning News

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