Administration to seek seatbelts in motorcoaches

AP News
Posted: Nov 16, 2009 7:13 PM

The Obama administration said Monday it will propose long-sought safety requirements for long-distance buses, including seatbelts and stronger roof standards.

A motorcoach safety plan released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls for developing performance requirements for bus roofs before the end of this year and issuing a rule by early next year on installation of seatbelts.

Safety advocates have for years urged seatbelts and stronger roofs to prevent passengers from being ejected in rollovers.

Motorcoaches are buses with elevated passenger decks over a baggage compartment. They are widely used for service between cities and by the tour industry.

Other elements of the plan include:

_ Requiring devices that record when a bus is turned on or off, in an effort to prevent drivers from operating a bus longer than is allowed. Driver fatigue was cited as a factor in some fatal accidents.

_ Prohibiting drivers from texting, and limiting their use of cell phones while behind the wheel. Federally-sponsored research found drivers were 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash if they were texting and nearly six times more likely if there they were dialing a cellphone.

_ Cracking down on bus operators who try to evade safety rules, so-called chameleon carriers who shut down operations under one name and reopen under another.

"We are committed to making sure that bus travelers reach their destinations safely," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "These improvements will not only help reduce the number of motorcoach crashes, it will also help save lives and reduce injuries."

Pete Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, said bus operators welcome the plan as a "holistic approach" to safety, although he objected to some of its elements.

He said that on board devices to monitor drivers' hours are unnecessary because fatigue isn't an issue in most accidents. He also said the government should issue all of its new requirements for bus design changes at once, rather than parcel them out over time.

"You have to look at re-designing, re-engineering in total, not a piece at a time," Pantuso said.

LaHood ordered a review of bus safety earlier this year following a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on a crash in Mexican Hat, Utah, that killed nine people and injured 43 others returning from a weekend ski trip. The roof of the bus was sheared off in the January 2008 accident and everyone aboard was ejected except for the driver, who was wearing the only seatbelt on the bus, and one man who was pinned between two seats.

The NTSB also cited the lack of seatbelts as a factor in the deaths of five members of Ohio's Bluffton University baseball team, who were killed along with their driver and his wife when their bus hurtled from an Atlanta highway overpass onto the interstate below in March 2007. Twenty-eight people were injured.

The transportation safety board has expressed frustration that federal regulators haven't acted on its long-standing recommendations for improved safety features on motorcoaches. The NTSB has recommended seat belts or other passenger restraints such as shatterproof windows and stronger roofs since a 1968 head-on collision involving a Greyhound bus killed 19 passengers near Baker, Calif.