As industry professionals prepare to descend on Tampa Bay, Fla., this month for the UMA Motorcoach EXPO, certainly much discussion will take place on the latest congressional attempt to introduce seat belts and other safety improvements to prohibit passenger ejections.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) co-authored three previous bills to enhance motorcoach safety following the deaths of seven Bluffton University baseball players after their bus crashed in Atlanta in 2007. Sen. Brown again called for several improvements to the vehicles and for drivers after another fatal crash involving the University of Mount Union wrestling team.
The crash occurred Jan. 11 on eastbound U.S. Highway 30 when the motorcoach driver attempted to pass and instead collided with a snow plow. Twenty-eight passengers were on board, including the student-athletes, coaches, statisticians, an athletic trainer and athletic training students. Both drivers were uninjured, but Mount Vernon Director of Athletic Training Dan Gorman was killed. Four others were injured and later released from the hospital.
“The news of last night’s fatal bus accident in Bucyrus [Ohio] seemed all too familiar.” Sen. Brown said. “That’s why I introduced legislation to overhaul motorcoach safety regulations, with the aim of dramatically reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by these accidents. Sadly, this common-sense measure has been blocked in the Senate.”
He added that he plans to re-introduce the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act during the current congressional session as he did the previous two. Most recently, Congress failed to pass the bill, which the United Motorcoach Association opposes, during the recent lame-duck session.
The Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act would require safety belts and stronger seating systems to keep occupants in their seats, improved commercial driver training and anti-ejection glazing windows. The legislation also calls for strong, crush-resistant roofs that can withstand rollovers, improved protection against fires by reducing flammability of the motorcoach interior and better training for operators in the case of fire.
A National Commercial Motor Vehicle Medical Registry would also ensure that only medically-qualified examiners conduct physical examinations of drivers and a medical certificate process to ensure that all certificates are valid and no unqualified operator is allowed to drive. The legislation also calls for strengthened motorcoach vehicle safety inspections including roadside inspections, safety audits, and state and motor carrier programs for identifying vehicle defects.
Finally, motorcoaches would be equipped with Electronic On-Board Recorders with real-time capabilities to track precise vehicle location that cannot be tampered with by the driver.
A NHTSA proposed its own rule that would address many of these regulations. The NPRM closed in October after receiving comments from across the nation. In addition to issuing its NPRM, NHTSA conducted scientific roll-over crash tests, roof-crush tests and a series of fire tests.
“We don’t think there is any legislation necessary; [we think] that NHTSA is following their mandate,” said Kenneth Pressley, UMA’s vice president of industry relations. “NHTSA is on course to do the things that are truthfully what the safety advocates want. and we’re expecting a rule. I’m not sure what legislation would do to change that.
“We certainly stressed [this] to Congress.”
UMA is also concerned about restrictive requirements for new operators wishing to enter the motorcoach business. Pressley said it is virtually impossible for coach operators to comply with federal regulations to purchase new coaches, hire new employees and have all necessary policies and procedures in place and then be forced to wait several months before on-site reviews are performed. Pressley said he had heard from one operator who leased a new facility, hired employees and bought vehicles but had to wait four months for his federal review.
“Most new entrants would not have the financial wherewithal to make payments on buses that were not generating revenue,” he said. “[The motorcoach operator] commented to me that he was one month away from not being able to continue. That’s not how new entrants run a business.”