- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Few pictures on the front page of The Washington Times are as horrific as a a bus accident - especially when it involves children. Each year, millions of American adults and children climb aboard buses, expecting safe trips across their communities or states. The vast majority of these bus passengers arrive safe and sound at their destination. But this is not always the case because, whether due to mechanical malfunction or driver error, bus accidents do occur and many of them result in preventable tragedy.

To help reduce the number of deaths and injuries caused by motorcoach accidents, and to save more families the grief and sadness of losing a loved one, we have collaborated in authoring a sweeping bus safety bill. At a Senate subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday, we began the process of addressing this critical transportation safety issue.

In the past three years, there has been a rash of deadly bus crashes.

In 2005, with Hurricane Rita threatening the Texas Gulf Coast, thousands fled from the storm’s path. A busload of nursing home residents evacuated out of Houston, hoping they were safer with every mile placed between them and the hurricane. The trip ended in tragedy when their poorly-maintained bus became engulfed in flames, claiming the lives of 23 elderly citizens.

On March 2, 2007, a motorcoach transporting Ohio’s Bluffton University baseball team to a spring break tournament in Florida plummeted off an overpass. Of the 35 people on board, five student-athlete baseball players, the bus driver, and his wife were killed.

This past summer saw an unprecedented spate of bus crashes. On August 8, 17 Vietnamese Catholics, en route from Houston to a religious festival in Missouri, were killed when their charter bus skidded into a guard rail and toppled onto its side. The very next day, a Las Vegas casino shuttle bus swerved off the interstate and collided with a center divider. Twenty-nine passengers were injured, four of them critically. The day after that, a bus transporting tourists to a Mississippi airport rolled over, causing three fatalities and dozens of injuries.

Many of these accidents are still under investigation, and the factors that caused each crash may vary dramatically. However, one thing is very clear: when a bus rolls over, the passengers on board will likely be injured or even killed.

Presently, motorcoach interiors are outfitted with seats designed to protect passengers from front- or rear-end impact. Specifically, if a bus is rear-ended by a tractor trailer while traveling, passengers will lurch into the seat in front of them, which will absorb the force and prevent them from being thrown from their seats.

But, in the case of a side impact or a rollover, passengers are much more vulnerable. When buses are hit from the side, their elongated structures are prone to twist, causing the windows to pop out and increasing the risk of passenger ejection from the vehicle. If a bus rolls over, the frame is likely to crumple because there is little structural support for the roof aside from the windows.

The National Transportation Safety Board has long called for substantial safety upgrades within the motorcoach industry, but its recommendations have languished for years without federal attention or action. Congress has been aware of safety gaps on buses for years, but the problem has been ignored.

Our legislation would direct the U.S. Department of Transportation to upgrade federal safety standards applicable to motorcoaches. The bill would require the installation of safety belts on every bus seat. It would mandate improved glazing on windows and other measures to prevent passenger-ejection. Enhanced seating designs could further reduce the risk of passengers being thrown from their seats and colliding with other passengers, debris or interior surfaces.

To reduce the occurrence of rollover crashes, our legislation would require buses to be equipped with electronic stability controls. The bill would also raise roof strength and crush resistance standards, so that when rollovers do happen, the passengers inside are better protected.

Overall, the bill would strengthen the operational requirements of drivers and companies, provide stronger oversight and compliance with federal safety rules, and encourage better training of bus operators to protect passengers from death and injury due to ejection, rollover, roof crush and fires.

Thursday’s Senate subcommittee hearing addressed these bus safety issues and our bill is now being examined by senators, government officials and safety experts.

We cannot look back and say, “How many passengers could have been saved?” But we can and must look forward. As millions of Americans continue to ride buses, we must take all possible measures to protect every single passenger.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from Texas and the ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Sherrod Brown is a Democratic member of the U.S. Senate from Ohio.

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