As horrific as the Orland bus crash was, it could have been even more deadly had students not been aboard a new bus with modern safety features.
Some were able to escape through windows designed as emergency exits before the motor coach exploded in flames, though investigators are examining how many windows jammed and had to be kicked out. The bus also had seat belts, though not all students were wearing them and some were apparently thrown from the bus.
While not foolproof, these safety features likely saved lives. But they are entirely voluntary on motor coaches – even though safety officials have been calling for them for decades.
There are thousands of motor coaches on the nation’s highways without those safeguards, putting passengers at risk every day. Too many cost-conscious operators have been resistant, and federal regulators have been too slow to force them to act.
The National Transportation Safety Board – which is investigating the causes of Thursday’s Interstate 5 collision and expects to issue preliminary findings within 30 days – recommended in February 1999 that federal regulators issue new standards for motor coaches so that passengers can easily open windows and exits. The board was responding to a 1997 accident in which a tour bus tumbled down an embankment off Interstate 95 in Virginia and overturned in a river. Some passengers struggled to escape through the windows.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets vehicle standards, studied the bus evacuation issue from 2007 to 2010. But it still hasn’t issued any rules.
In a statement Monday, NHTSA said it is working on the regulations and “is committed to improving motor coach safety.”
It cannot take the nearly half-century that NHTSA waited to require seats belts on tour and intercity buses. The NTSB first urged seat belts in 1968 after investigating another fiery crash in California, this one killing 19 people near the Mojave Desert town of Baker. The mandate for three-point lap-shoulder belts starts in November 2016 for all new motor coaches, but still doesn’t cover existing buses because that would have been too expensive.
Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall says that motor coach 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,” he told The Associated Press.
Without federal regulations, it’s up to groups chartering these buses to check on equipment and driver safety. The 44 high school students from Southern California headed for Humboldt State University were on a bus operated by Silverado Stages, which says it is the state’s largest private motor coach operator and has one of the most modern fleets in the industry. It has a strong safety record. The San Luis Obispo-based company says it did not have an accident causing injury in 24 years of operation – until Thursday, when a FedEx truck crossed the median and struck the bus head-on, killing both drivers, five students and three adult chaperones.
In an average year, 20 people are killed and nearly 8,000 injured in large bus crashes. The nation’s 29,000 motor coaches carry about 700 million passengers a year, about the same as the domestic airline industry. But unlike plane crashes, most bus crashes don’t get national publicity.
The Orland crash has – and if any good is to come out of this tragedy, it will refocus attention on motor coach safety and finally spur action.