Insurance News

Feds to require safety belts on commercial buses

Posted on: May 22, 2009

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to require safety belts on commercial motor coaches, the agency told Congress Monday.

The issue has gotten significant attention in the wake of a number of highly publicized, deadly commercial bus crashes; seat belts on motor coaches have been long urged by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB makes recommendations on safety, but doesn’t have legal authority to require changes; NHTSA has legal authority to set auto safety standards.

“I think it is true that NHTSA was slow to act,” Ron Medford, the acting top official at NHTSA, said Monday, adding that commercial bus safety is now a high priority of the agency.

“We are on it,” he said.

Medford told the House subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection that NHTSA would propose mandatory safety belts on motor coaches yet this year, and finalize the requirement after a period of public comment.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made bus safety a top issue as well, and he will meet with NTSB later this week on the issue, said Kathleen Higgins, an NTSB member.

In 2006, more than 630 million people took trips on motor coaches — almost as many as traveled by airplane.

“There are fewer NHTSA safety standards for motor coaches than for any other motor vehicles regulated by the agency,” said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and long-time auto safety advocate.

Congress is considering reauthorization of the four-year surface transportation bill — a law that typically includes major auto safety requirements.

Medford said NHTSA is studying whether to impose roof strength requirements for commercial buses. Last month, the agency finalized its roof crush requirements for cars and light trucks — doubling the requirements for roof strength and extending them to heavier vehicles that previously were exempt from the requirements. The new roof strength rules are expected to save 135 lives and prevent more than 1,000 injuries annually.

Other motor coach issues on the table include fire safety and emergency exit. A 2007 accident and fire on a bus near Wilmer, Texas, led to the deaths of 23 elderly nursing home patients.

Higgins, the NTSB member, noted that 17 people die, on average, in commercial buses every year, making it one of the safest methods of travel on the road.

But a number of notable accidents — including the deaths of seven people in 2007 on a bus carrying the Bluffton (Ohio) University baseball team — have led to proposals in Congress to mandate safety belts on buses to keep people in their seats during rollovers and other serious accidents.

Since 1998, the NTSB has investigated 33 motor coach accidents involving the ejection of 255 passengers, and it has called on NHTSA to improve protections for commercial buses since 1999.

Higgins said motor coaches should be equipped with so-called “black boxes” or event data recorders similar to what airplanes have to better understand the causes of major accidents.

In an interview after the hearing, Medford said the agency is only planning to require safety belts on motor coaches — not school buses.

In October, NHTSA required lap and shoulder safety belts for small school buses under 10,000 pounds by 2011, but declined to extend the requirement to larger school buses.

While the federal government can require seat belts on buses, it cannot force passengers to wear them.

© Copyright 2008 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.

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