- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The technology exists to prevent many bus crashes and to make it more likely passengers will survive those that do occur, but government regulators have failed to implement safety recommendations that in some case stretch back decades, safety advocates told a Senate panel Wednesday.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said her five-year-old minivan has more advanced safety technology than many large buses, also known as motor coaches.

“The technology does exist, and it’s important that it be applied to the vehicles most in need of it,” Mrs. Hersman told a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s transportation subcommittee. She cited adaptive cruise control, which adjusts a vehicle’s speed to traffic conditions, and electronic stability control, which helps prevent rollovers, as two examples of technologies commonly found in cars but not required for buses.

Ron Medford, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said his agency plans to issue new bus safety standards but needs more time to craft the regulations.

“We are dedicated to getting this done as fast as we can,” Mr. Medford said. “But we want to base it on good science and good engineering.”

Deadly bus crashes over the past decade have claimed dozens of lives, including college baseball players in Atlanta, Vietnamese Catholics in Texas, skiers in Utah and, this month, gamblers returning to New York’s Chinatown.

The New York accident, which killed 15 passengers and critically injured several others, as well as recent bus accidents in New Hampshire and New Jersey, have rekindled interest in bipartisan legislation that would require regulators to act on longstanding NTSB bus safety recommendations.

The recommendations include requiring seatbelts for all passengers and electric onboard recorders that keep track of how many hours a driver has been behind the wheel.

The NTSB also has urged that buses have stronger roofs that aren’t easily crushed or sheared off to prevent passengers from being ejected in a rollover and to ensure they have enough space inside to survive. The board wants bus windows to be glazed using new, more advanced methods so they hold together even when shattered. And, the board wants windows and exits that are easier for passengers to open.

About half of all motor coach fatalities in recent years have occurred as the result of rollovers, and about 70 percent of those killed in rollover accidents were ejected from the bus, according to the Transportation Department.

“If the regulatory agency had moved on their rulemakings, or the Congress had required these things to be done, we might have been able to prevent some of these fatalities,” Mrs. Hersman said.

In November 2009, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released a plan for issuing regulations that address many of the NTSB recommendations. The only recommendation that has been fully implemented is a ban on texting by bus and truck drivers. The department also has proposed rules requiring seat belts for all passengers and electric onboard recorders, and a ban on handheld cellphone use by bus and truck drivers while driving. Those rules have not been made final.

The department said Wednesday that it was suspending the interstate operating authority of Super Luxury Tours Inc. of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. One of the company’s buses crashed earlier this month on the New Jersey Turnpike, killing the driver and one passenger and injuring several other passengers.