Testimony of Mark V. Rosenker, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Highways and Transit
March 20, 2007
Good morning Chairman DeFazio, Ranking Member Duncan and Members of the Subcommittee. My name is Mark Rosenker, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Mr. Chairman, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and the Members of the Subcommittee and staff for inviting the Safety Board to testify today on the topic of Motorcoach Safety and for your continued interest in furthering the safety of our Nation’s highways.
As you know, the Safety Board is charged with investigating highway accidents, determining their probable or root cause, and making recommendations to prevent similar accidents from happening again. Changes in highway or vehicle design, driver training, occupant protection, and regulatory oversight are frequently recommended. In 2006, the Safety Board did important work regarding automatic slack adjusters on large trucks, highway median barriers, toll plaza designs, collision warning systems, vehicle incompatibility, highway construction oversight, and cell phone use by bus drivers.
But today, the topic is motorcoach safety. Intercity motorcoach travel is one of the safest modes of transportation, with fewer than 17 fatalities on the motorcoach in an average year. It is also one of the most popular forms of travel, transporting more passengers than either commercial air or rail travel, according to industry estimates. However, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) FARS database, 33 persons riding in motorcoaches received fatal injuries during 2005. This is the highest number of on-board fatalities in at least the last 15 years. Unfortunately, one of the accidents I would like to speak about today made the largest contribution to that number.
Let me just touch on a few of the recent issues that the Safety Board has addressed in its accident investigations concerning motorcoach safety. Those issues include:
Even though intercity motorcoach operations are one of the safest modes of transportation, the Safety Board has long been concerned about the safety of those who ride in motorcoaches. Quite frankly, people have a right to expect the highest level of safety when they pay for a ticket and place their safety in the hands of a motorcoach operator. One of the reasons motorcoach operations are so safe is because they usually provide a reasonable level of occupant protection when accidents occur. Unfortunately, the occupant protection provided in motorcoaches does not work well in all accident scenarios.
For example, just last week, our investigators were at the scene of a motorcoach accident in Atlanta that involved a baseball team from Buffton University in Ohio. The motorcoach took an exit ramp from the left lane, failed to stop at the end of the exit ramp, collided with and overrode a concrete bridge rail, and fell 30 feet to the highway below.
Although this accident occurred only 18 days ago, we know from past experience that one of the major issues is likely to be the crashworthiness of the motorcoach. In this accident, 7 people died, including 5 students, the bus driver and his wife. But perhaps more importantly, some of the occupants were ejected or partially ejected from the vehicle. We know from past investigations that keeping occupants within the vehicle is paramount to their protection. In addition, the vehicle itself must be strong enough to prevent intrusion into the occupant compartment. Finally, the seats, side panels, and other surfaces need to absorb energy when impacted by occupants in the crash scenario. When all of these concepts work together, it greatly increases the occupants’ chance of survival.
As you know, motorcoaches use a form of passive occupant protection called “compartmentalization.” One of the advantages of compartmentalization is that it requires no action on the part of the occupant to implement. Current passive safety features on automobiles include airbags and energy-absorbing materials on interior surfaces. For example, on school buses, compartmentalization provides a protective envelope consisting of strong, closely spaced seats, which have high, energy-absorbing seat backs--not unlike an egg crate. In concept, motorcoaches incorporate a form of compartmentalization, but it is less rigorous and less regulated than that of school busses.
In 1999, the Safety Board published 2 special investigation reports on the crashworthiness of motorcoaches. Those reports were the “Bus Crashworthiness Issues,” in which we examined 6 schoolbus accidents and 40 bus accidents, and “Selective MotorcoachIssues,” in which we examined 2 motorcoach accidents in detail.
What we found in these studies is that one of the primary causes of preventable injury in motorcoach accidents occurs when the occupant is thrown out of the seat during a collision. The overall injury risk to occupants can be significantly reduced by retaining the occupant in the seating compartment throughout the collision. In addition, we found that equipping motorcoach side windows with advanced glazing may decrease the number of ejections of unrestrained passengers and decrease the risk of serious injuries to restrained passengers during motorcoach accidents. Finally, we found that the strength and height needed to open an emergency window when a motorcoach is not upright poses a problem for some passengers, especially children, senior citizens, and some injury victims.
As a result of these findings, the Board made 6 recommendations to improve motorcoach occupant protection in 3 primary areas:
We asked NHTSA to develop and implement performance standards for motorcoach occupant protection systems that account for frontal, side, and rear impact collisions and rollovers. We also asked NHTSA to revise window-glazing requirements to prevent occupant ejection.
In addition, we asked NHTSA to revise the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 217 on “Bus Window Retention and Release,” to require that emergency window exits be easily opened and that they remain open during an emergency evacuation when a motorcoach is upright or at unusual attitudes.
Finally, we would like to see requirements for motorcoach roof strength that provide maximum survival space for all seating positions and that take into account current typical motorcoach window dimensions.
In summary, surviving an accident depends on many factors. The structural integrity of the vehicle and passenger compartments, seat design, and restraint systems can all increase a person’s likelihood of surviving a crash.
The next motorcoach safety issue I would like to discuss is motorcoach fires.
On September 23, 2005, a fire engulfed a motorcoach carrying elderly evacuees away from the predicted path of Hurricane Rita near Dallas, Texas. The 44 passengers were from an assisted-living facility in Bellaire, Texas; many needed to be carried or assisted onto the motorcoach by firefighters or nursing staff, and required almost 2 hours to board. Twenty-three elderly passengers were unable to escape the blaze and perished.
The following safety issues related to the fire were identified in this investigation:
Fires on motorcoaches are not an unusual occurrence. In fact, some industry experts estimate that there is close to one motorcoach fire per day. However, to date, injuries and fatalities related to motorcoach fires are an extremely rare event. Still, the motorcoach fire we investigated near Dallas shows the potential for catastrophe when passengers are unable to exit a burning motorcoach quickly.
Also, I want to make it clear that this accident involved very unusual circumstances, and many of the decisions to evacuate and the means to evacuate were made in the context of Hurricane Katrina, which occurred just over a month before this accident.
Here is what the Board found:
As a result of its investigation, the NTSB made the following recommendations:
Motorcoach Maintenance and Oversight by FMCSA
The next motorcoach safety issue I would like to discuss is oversight of the motorcoach industry by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
As discussed previously, the Safety Board determined that the cause of a fatal bus fire near Dallas, Texas, was insufficient lubrication in the right-side tag axle wheel bearing assembly of the motorcoach, which resulted in increased temperatures and subsequent failed wheel bearings. The high temperatures resulting from the friction led to the ignition of the tire and a catastrophic fire. This occurred because the motorcoach operator, Global Limo, Inc., failed to detect this lack of lubrication and FMCSA failed to provide proper oversight of the motor carrier through its compliance review process.
Here is what the Board found:
Unfortunately, FMCSA is only able to conduct compliance reviews for a small fraction of the almost 911,000 motor carriers in this country. However, in this particular accident, numerous driver and vehicle safety violations were uncovered in a review performed by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) in April 2002. But at the time, the Texas DPS had no authority to force Global to cease operations. In February 2004, FMCSA conducted a compliance review of Global in which it found similar violations pertaining to drivers and vehicles. Nonetheless, FMCSA rated Global as “satisfactory.” Finally, 19 months later, after the bus fire near Dallas, FMCSA went back to Global and conducted another compliance review in September 2005. In this review, FMCSA found many of the same violations as in its previous compliance review; however, this time FMCSA gave Global a safety rating of “unsatisfactory” and declared that Global’s operations created an “imminent hazard” to public safety. FMCSA issued an order for Global to cease operations.
Concerned that motor carriers with significant regulatory violations for drivers and vehicles are still receiving satisfactory ratings, the Safety Board once more focused on Federal standards for determining the safety fitness of carriers. As a result, the Board made the following recommendations:
Cell Phone Use by Bus Drivers
Finally, I would like to discuss the issue of cell phone use by bus drivers.
On November 14, 2004, during daylight hours, a 44-year-old bus driver was operating a motorcoach in the southbound right lane of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia, taking 27 high school students and a chaperone to Mount Vernon. This vehicle was the second one of a two-bus team. The motor carrier, Eyre Bus Service, Inc., operates this route frequently, and the accident bus driver had driven this route on one previous occasion 9 days earlier.
The motorcoach was traveling approximately 46 miles per hour as it approached the stone arched Alexandria Avenue overpass bridge, which passes over the GW Parkway. The bus driver passed warning signs indicating that the right lane had only a 10-foot, 2-inch clearance, while the center lane had a 13-foot 4-inch clearance. The bus was 12 feet tall. The lead bus moved into the center lane, but the accident bus driver remained in the right lane and drove the bus into the underside of the bridge. Witnesses and the bus driver reported he was talking on a hands-free cellular telephone at the time of the accident.
Of the 27 student passengers, 10 received minor injuries and 1 sustained serious injuries. The bus driver and chaperone were uninjured. The bus’s roof was destroyed.
The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was the bus driver’s failure to notice and respond to posted low-clearance warning signs and to the bridge itself due to cognitive distraction resulting from conversing on a hands-free cellular telephone while driving. Contributing to the accident was the low vertical clearance of the bridge, which does not meet current National Park Service road standards or American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials guidelines.
As a result of this accident, the Safety Board made the following recommendations:
Finally, the Safety Board also reiterated a previously issued Safety Recommendation to 20 States to modify their traffic accident investigation forms to include driver distraction codes, including codes for interactive wireless communication device use.
Mr. Chairman, I know you share my desire to improve motorcoach safety and I hope this information will assist you in accomplishing that goal. This completes my statement, and I will be happy to respond to any questions you may have.