What we have here is a failure to administrate

By David Hubbard

In its summation of the Mexican Hat crash of January 2008 that killed nine passengers, the decision by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to also bring the hammer down on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has stirred a smoldering fire.

NTSB voted unanimously to cite the NHTSA for failing to implement recommendations that could already have lead to new safety equipment on buses, including seatbelts and stronger roofs and windows.This comes on top of pinpointing driver fatigue as the primary cause of the crash.

For whatever reason regulators at the Department of Transportation have been saying while they are working on making motorcoaches safer, they cannot rush the process.

Inadequate regulations

Responding in the press, former NTSB chairman Jim Hall noted back in 1999 he received the same response whe he presented NHTSA a study to show bus safety regulations were inadequate. He says for the previous 10 years NHTSA had dragged its feet on nearly every recommendation NTSB made regarding motorcoach safety.

“Ten years ago NTSB recommended new safety standards that would require strengthened roofs, easy-to-open windows, and possibly seatbelt restraints,” he writes. Had NHTSA taken our recommendations seriously, crash-protection systems would have been required on all motorcoaches years ago. But NHTSA balked and decades later the studies continue with no rule-making to show for them.”

Acting NTSB chairman Mark V. Rosenker concurs, saying the current scene reminds him of NHTSA 50 years ago. “They started making impotant safety improvements in automobiles,” he says. “Essentially nothing has been done for motorcoaches.”

NTSB says the delay by NHTSA no doubt contributed to the severity of the Mexican Hat crash. In this case the roof of the motorcoach sheared off and everyone was thrown out except the driver who was wearing only seatbelt, and one passenger pinned between seats.

NTSB also criticized the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), claiming it had yet to act on recommendations an outside advisory had issued for more stringent driver medical certifications, which included a more thorough examination of the effects of sleep apnea. The FMCSA reported back to say it was reviewing the recommendations and supplementing them with additional research.

The collective voice is going to get louder

Meanwhile, bus accident victims are pressing the government to be more aggressive. Ironic but sad, at this moment as I am writing, the news of yet another fatal motorcoach accident in northern California is on the screen. The collective voice is only going to get louder, and the fire is breaking into a six-alarm emergency.

More irony at this moment as I just received the DOT press release of April 30 announcing the order by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for a full departmental review of motorcoach safety.

Secretary LaHood says a departmental motorcoach safety action plan will be created from the findings, and will outline the additional steps needed to improve motorcoach safety. The review will also consider outstanding NTSB recommendations to U.S. DOT. The full report will be released in August.

Maybe the nightmare of building and operating motorcoaches without U.S. standards will soon be over. Still the danger at this point for the industry and its passengers is the compulsion to rush to judgment. The next step cannot be knee jerk atonement for time lost, nor merely a reactionary response to public outcry.

As the DOT now attempts to accelerate its plan to end the turmoil, the public has to realize there is more to this than seat belts. If DOT follows all recommendations, it will decide on at least seven separate rules. Seat belts for openers, but the agenda also includes roof and sidewall strength, advanced glazing requirements, emergency passenger egress standards, fire prevention and suppression, electronic onboard recorders and electronic stability controls.

At this juncture it would be negligent of the government and this industry to promote standards that skirt real science and sound engineering principles, and fail to encompass all the factors that affect motorcoach safety. Anything less will only cost more lives at even greater expense, time and effort.