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Orland crash prompts federal call for black box recorders on buses, trucks

Ten people were killed in the fiery April 2014 crash of a FedEx truck and a bus carrying Los Angeles area students, counselors and chaperones to a north state college for a tour and orientation.
Ten people were killed in the fiery April 2014 crash of a FedEx truck and a bus carrying Los Angeles area students, counselors and chaperones to a north state college for a tour and orientation. Sacramento Bee file

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday called on commercial bus and truck manufacturers to install data recorders after investigators couldn’t find the cause of a fiery crash last year in Orland that killed 10 people, many of them high school students.

The NTSB said it was unable to determine why a southbound tractor-trailer rig crossed the median of Interstate 5, striking a northbound charter bus full of high school students from Southern California heading to Humboldt State University for a preview weekend.

NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart noted that the presence of “black box” recorders in commercial aviation had been a vital tool for decades in investigations that helped the board make recommendations to prevent future accidents.

He added that despite “more than a decade of recommendations by the NTSB,” federal regulators at the U.S. Department of Transportation had not required them in large motor vehicles.

“With access to event data recorders,” Hart said, “we might have been able to determine why the truck crossed the median, which could have enabled us to make recommendations to prevent it from happening again.”

Both drivers were killed in the April 10, 2014, crash, as were eight passengers on the bus, including five students, a Humboldt admissions counselor and two chaperones. Most of the victims initially survived but couldn’t escape the bus as it was quickly engulfed by fire, fed by leaking fuel from the truck.

The wreckage blocked the front exit, forcing passengers to escape through windows that were 7 feet off the ground and didn’t stay open. The bus also lacked adequate lighting and signage to direct passengers through the accumulating smoke.

“It is unacceptable for anyone who survives a crash to perish in a post-crash fire because the exits were too hard to find or too difficult to use,” Hart said.

In a synopsis of its forthcoming accident report, the board said the federal flammability standard for buses is “outdated” and doesn’t match standards used in commercial aviation and passenger rail.

A message left for the American Bus Association wasn’t answered, but the group has expressed support for the installation of data recorders.

Sean McNally, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, said the industry trade group “supports the use of many technologies, including event data recorders, that can positively impact safety.”

He added that access to such data should be safeguarded to ensure privacy and that all vehicles, not just trucks and buses, should be so equipped.

In the Orland crash, NTSB investigators were able to rule out the drivers’ experience, licensing and training; drug or alcohol use; mechanical failures or weather. They also found no evidence of fatigue or distraction.

Cable median barriers were not installed on the stretch of freeway where the crash took place, devices credited with preventing crossover crashes.

The NTSB found that the crash location’s average daily traffic and crash history didn’t warrant median barriers under California’s standards, which exceed federal requirements.

More than 300 cross-median crashes took place on interstate highways in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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