A bus in India crashes into a roadside barrier and catches fire, killing 40 of its passengers – many of them burned alive by the blazes. A makeshift bus in Peru transporting 52 Quechua Indians (including 13 children) takes a plunge off a cliff, killing everyone on board, while a school bus driver from Beltsville, MD, leaves his bus unattended and this hits an 8 year-old child who was sitting on a curb at a bus stop nearby.
Buses are often the most convenient and cost-effective way to travel from one destination to another, but when the trip could end your life, you have plenty of reasons to reconsider your options. According to a spokesperson for the American Bus Association, approximately 750 million passengers – the equivalent of the Europe’s entire population – prefer this means of transportation, as it is safer and more effective in preventing injury compared to other motor vehicles on the road. Statistics confirm it: in a year, only 221 fatal bus accidents occur on US roads as opposed to more than 18,000 car crashes. Currently, school buses are deemed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as the safest method to take children to and from school, buses also keeping an estimated 17.3 million cars off roads around schools every year.
Despite the reassuring numbers, accidents involving tour, city, and school buses are a growing concern for authorities in the United States, because mishaps rarely happen – in most cases, it is the drivers’ negligence or recklessness that causes the vehicle to crash. According to a 2009 study, 15 in 19 bus accidents occur from the driver’s fault, who is either speeding, disregarding weather conditions, changing lanes without signaling, and veering off the road. Young, inexperienced bus drivers are more likely to get involved in severe road accidents, as well as bus drivers over 55, accident severity peaking for those over 65 years of age.
Despite the undisputed safety record held by buses in comparison to other road vehicles, between 2000 and 2007, more than 1,000 fatal accidents involving buses resulted in 1,315 fatalities and 3,471 injuries. 2009 was an especially bad year, with more than 250 dead and 20,000 injured in crashes involving large buses. More so, the findings of several studies are starting to debunk the safety myth, showing that “buses are not, by some measures, necessarily safer than cars. While bus accidents comprise a relatively small share of the total accidents (0.6%) in the United States, the number of bus accidents per million passenger miles (3.04) is comparable to the number of car accidents per million driven miles (3.21).”
Safety Standards, Not Updated in 15 Years
The recent gruesome collision between the FedEx truck and the charter bus occurred a couple of days ago in Northern California has highlighted an already sensitive issue: regulators’ failure of issuing new safety standards for large buses is claiming more and more lives. In numerous bus-related accidents, passengers are often trapped inside, and only if they’re lucky, they are able to kick out a window and squeeze through before the vehicle catches on fire.
February, 1999, was the first time when the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that law-makers upgrade safety standards for coach buses in order to allow passengers involved in an accident to easily open windows and access emergency exits. Unfortunately, this was one of the many other motorcoach-related issues that regulators failed to resolve – a recommendation requiring seat belts to be installed on new motorcoaches was taken into consideration only after a fatal crash killing 19 passengers in Baker, Calif. For former NHTSA board chairman Jim Hall, this isn’t surprising news: “Unfortunately, motorcoach safety has historically been an orphan at NHTSA. This is the transportation that carries primarily older people, students and low-income people. It hasn’t been a priority (for regulators).”
In December, 2013, 52 bus companies operating in the United States were shut down by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration due to unsafe practices. The project was titled “Operation Quick Strike” and targeted small and large carriers that posed an immediate threat to the public. The findings were worrisome: some had employees who were driving with a suspended license or “worked over 800-mile routes without resting.” 32 bus carriers received unsatisfactory reviews regarding safety, while 28 companies took immediate measures to solve the issues and avoided being shut down.
Currently, two particular issues are seeing a lot of attention from safety advocates, who have repeatedly demanded adding seat restraints and improving emergency exits by 2016. Although the ruling will not require older buses to be refitted, officials are expecting a 44 percent drop in the number of fatalities per year, hoping to see bus-related accidents happening less often and less fiery in the future.
How Much Do Bus Companies Care about You?
For almost two decades, discount bus lines were regarded as being extremely safe, but at one point during the early 1990s, a disturbing trend was born, and from 6-10 accidents per year, numbers started going up to 25-30 fatalities per year. According to the Executive Director of the Bus Industry Safety Council, the tremendous increase in bus accident rate is mainly accounted for by the fast growth of bus companies in the 1990s. “There was a lot of capital around. The bus manufacturers started doing what [car manufacturers in] Detroit did: They would build buses when they didn’t have sales, put them on the lots, and basically try to collar anybody into buying one. I would go through the various regulatory requirements, and it became very obvious very quickly they didn’t care about that.”
Another visible way by which bus companies disregard public safety is the failure to keep employees financially motivated – the 2012 median salary for a bus driver was $29,550 per year – roughly $15/hour. For this salary, school bus drivers, for instance, have to “safely operate the school bus, contend with children ranging in age from 4 to 19, and find themselves involved in issues and controversies concerning school districts, parents, students, and employers.”
Neither are states authorities prioritizing and properly addressing the bus security issue. According to the Commercial Truck and Bus Safety Synthesis Program report, all states have rules requiring background and criminal checks for all employees, but some states allow educational facilities to set up their own background check criteria. Another varying requirement among US states is the youngest age permitted for school bus drivers: 18 states require drivers to be at least 21 years old, while 25 states allow individuals of only 18 years of age to get behind the wheel of a school bus. Physical condition, level of fitness, driver distraction, and training are other aspects interpreted differently by US states.
Technology Stepping In
Fortunately, we live in a digital age where we have all the information in the world at our fingertips. Nowadays, it is possible to check out the safety record of a bus company before getting on or renting a vehicle for the summer, and it only involves downloading an app on your smartphone.
Seeing the recent trend of discount bus lines becoming popular among vacationers, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) released its newest app SaferBus, which grants passengers riding on a bus easy access to the safety record of a particular transportation firm. Here are other useful features of the app:
- Consumers can search for a bus company’s name, MC number, or DOT number and see whether it has been placed out-of-service or operating in illegality. Names of companies that are not allowed to operate are displayed in bold red.
- The application provides easy access to up to 24 months of safety performance data, including driver performance, vehicle maintenance, unsafe driving records, and DUI track. A percentile is calculated based on this information so customers can see which company ranks highest in terms of security.
- The SaferBus application allows passengers, as well as drivers, to file a complaint concerning security and other service issues. The complaint can either by filed by accessing the National Consumer Complaint Database and clicking the “Leave a Complaint” button, or by calling the agency’s toll-free line at 1-888-368-7238, Monday through Friday.
Buses may be among the safest vehicles on the road, but that doesn’t exempt them from safety and security concerns. In order to prevent such gruesome accidents from happening in the future, further research is needed to gain insight on how current issues are addressed and what is being done to improve problem areas, such as emergency exits, fire protection, evacuation procedures, and design challenges. Ultimately, it is up to lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, and state authorities to persuade bus fleet managers to implement rigorous design standards (meant to protect against violent collision forces) and more effective firefighting procedures. Such measures might end up saving thousands of innocent lives.
About the Author:
Andrew Winston is a partner at the personal injury law firm of The Law Office of Andrew Winston. He has been recognized for excellence in the representation of injured clients by admission to the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, is AV Rated by the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, and was recently voted by his peers as a Florida “SuperLawyer”-an honor reserved for the top 5% of lawyers in the state-and to Florida Trend’s “Legal Elite.”