As horrific as the Orland bus crash was, it could have been even more deadly had students not been aboard a new bus with modern safety features.
Some were able to escape through windows designed as emergency exits before the motor coach exploded in flames, though investigators are examining how many windows jammed and had to be kicked out. The bus also had seat belts, though not all students were wearing them and some were apparently thrown from the bus.
While not foolproof, these safety features likely saved lives. But they are entirely voluntary on motor coaches – even though safety officials have been calling for them for decades. Too many cost-conscious operators have resisted, and federal regulators have been too slow to force them to act.
The National Transportation Safety Board – which is investigating the causes of Thursday’s Interstate 5 collision – recommended in February 1999 that federal regulators issue new standards for motor coaches so that passengers can easily open windows and exits. The board was responding to a 1997 accident in which a tour bus tumbled down an embankment in Virginia and overturned in a river. Some passengers struggled to escape.
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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets vehicle standards, studied the bus evacuation issue from 2007 to 2010. But it still hasn’t issued any rules. That’s four years ago.
Monday, the NHTSA said in a statement it is working on the regulations and “is committed to improving motor coach safety.”
It cannot take the nearly half-century that NHTSA waited to require seats belts on tour and intercity buses. The NTSB first urged seat belts in 1968 after investigating a fiery crash that killed 19 people near the Mojave Desert town of Baker. The mandate for three-point lap-shoulder belts starts in November 2016 for all new motor coaches, but still doesn’t cover existing buses because that would have been too expensive.
Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall says motor coach safety “has historically been an orphan at NHTSA. This is the transportation that carries primarily older people, students and low-income people. It hasn’t been a priority,” he told The Associated Press.
Without federal regulations, it’s up to groups chartering buses to check on equipment and driver safety. The 44 high school students from Southern California headed for Humboldt State were on a bus operated by Silverado Stages, which says it is the state’s largest private motor coach operator and has one of the industry’s most modern fleets. The San Luis Obispo-based company says it did not have an accident causing injury in 24 years of operation – until Thursday, when a FedEx truck crossed the median and struck the bus head-on, killing both drivers, five students and three adult chaperones. It could have been worse; we are thankful it was not.
In an average year, 20 people are killed and nearly 8,000 injured in large bus crashes. The nation’s 29,000 motor coaches carry about 700 million passengers a year, about the same as the domestic airline industry. But unlike plane crashes, most bus crashes don’t get national publicity.
We will not suggest that any good can come of this tragedy. But we will ask that those in a position of responsibility rededicate themselves to making riders safer through designing, building and – most importantly – procuring better motor coaches. If we don’t demand safe buses, the manufacturers have no reason to build them.