The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) claims that accidents involving motor coaches are rare and that these vehicles are among the safest on the road. The industry transports 750 million passengers per year, with each bus carrying large numbers of people. But, despite this glowing report, an article in USA Today recently charged the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) with undercounting motor coach accidents and deaths at least since 1995. The article further states that inaccurate numbers given by the NHTSA in testimony before Congress creates a false impression that buses are safer than they really are.
Although the NTSB has made recommendations designed to improve motor coach safety, the actual implementation of these changes has languished for more than a decade. The only significant recent improvement, a ban on texting by all commercial drivers, dates from January 2010. An additional proposal would prohibit reaching for, holding, or dialing a cell phone while operating a commercial vehicle. This rule has yet to go into effect.
Government audits of tour bus companies have been incomplete at best. The purpose of these audits is to check compliance with certain rules, such as testing drivers for drugs and alcohol and limiting their time behind the wheel in order to prevent fatigue. But there seems to be no law that specifies how often such inspections must occur. New bus companies can operate for as long as 18 months without a full audit.
In addition, even multiple violations will not necessarily result in the shut-down of a bus company. In 2011, a World Wide Travel bus crash killed 15 passengers near New York City. The company had last been fully audited in 2008 and had been cited for 5 violations of “fatigued driver” since 2009. The Federal Motor Coach Safety Administration (FMCSA) places bus companies on “alert” when spot inspections find repeated safety violations. FMCSA lists 433 out of 3,100 motor coach companies as on “alert.” And, although these companies present a higher level of passenger safety risk, they can continue operating for 9 months or more before receiving a full safety audit.
New Safety Recommendations
In response to a recent rash of fatal bus crashes Congress introduced the Motorcoach Enhancement Safety Act of 2011. Among the NTSB safety recommendations that the legislation seeks to implement are:
- Requiring seat belts for all passengers.
- Electric on-board recorders that monitor the number of hours a driver has been on the road. Driver fatigue is the number one cause of bus accidents and accounts for 36 percent of motor coach fatalities.
- Stronger roofs that resist being sheared off or crushed and prevent passengers from being ejected during a rollover. About half of all motor coach fatalities result from rollovers, with a 70 percent death rate for passengers ejected from the bus.
- Improved glazing for bus windows to prevent shattering.
- Windows and exits that are easier for passengers to open.
In the fall of 2011, federal, state and local police began an intensive, two-week inspection sweep, conducting thousands of surprise safety inspections of motor coaches, tour buses, school buses, and other passenger vehicles. In spite of its shortcomings on safety audits, the FMCSA has actually doubled the number of roadside motor coach inspections and safety reviews over the past 5 years. Since 2008, FMCSA has also stepped up its enforcement against unsafe passenger carriers.
These developments are promising, but the NHSTA needs to tell the whole story when reporting on motor coach safety statistics. From 2003 to 2009, the agency failed to include at least 14 motor coach accidents and 32 passenger fatalities among its official tally. Members of the public deserve a more accurate reality check on safety each time they decide to board a motor coach.