Remarks of Mark V. Rosenker, Acting Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
Greater New Jersey Motorcoach Association
June 3, 2009
Good afternoon, and thank you (Tom Dugan and Tom Jarbin )for your kind invitation and warm hospitality. I am always happy to be here in New Jersey with my friends and colleagues in the motorcoach industry.
Restoring Public Confidence
For those of you who are not that familiar with the Board, let me briefly describe what we are all about. We are an independent agency charged with investigating transportation accidents. I’m sure all of you are familiar with the Board’s role in aviation where we are famous for recovering the “black box”, painstakingly sifting through the wreckage, and ultimately determining the cause of major aviation tragedies. We of course do the same work and apply many of the same techniques in rail, marine, pipeline, and highway accidents. However, seldom do these surface modes garner the public’s interest as much as aviation accidents. Then again, the Big Dig tunnel collapse in Boston in 2006 and the bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 have come very close.
So when tragedies occur they attract a huge amount of media attention, and as a result, the potential exists for the public to lose confidence in our transportation systems. A perceived lack of public confidence can mean that fewer people are willing to fly or perhaps ride motorcoaches. Therefore, our job is to restore the confidence of the traveling public, after major transportation disasters, by conducting unbiased, independent, and transparent investigations to determine the cause of accidents and find solutions to prevent them from happening again.
Since we last got together the Safety Board has completed 4 motorcoach investigations. Three of which we talked about last year and one which may be new to you. Without bragging, I’d say this is pretty impressive, given the fact that we also completed the Minneapolis Bridge investigation last November. Anyway, here is how those accident investigations turned out.
You’ll recall the Atlanta, GA investigation involved a baseball team traveling from Bluffton University in Ohio in which the motorcoach mistakenly took a left HOV exit ramp and fell 30 feet to the highway below. Seven occupants were killed, 28 were injured, including 12 ejections. In July of last year, the Board’s report found that the cause of the accident was poor HOV signage, but the severity of the accident and loss of life and injury was due to lack of an adequate occupant protection system. I’ll speak more on this issue later. As a side bar, we don’t always get confirmation that we have made the right call because it is hard to measure accidents that don’t happen. But since this accident, two motorcoaches have mistakenly taken this left exit ramp and narrowly avoided another tragedy. Atlanta is now scrambling to get new signs up. But unfortunately on the other issue of occupant protection, very little has been done.
In September the Safety Board completed its investigation of an accident involving a tractor-trailer and a motorcoach carrying a high school marching band that occurred in the early morning hours on Interstate 94 near Osseo, Wisconsin. The fatigued tractor-trailer driver fell asleep, lost control of his vehicle, and overturned blocking both lanes of the highway. The underside of the tractor-trailer was facing oncoming traffic and since it was dark, the motorcoach driver couldn’t see it until it was too late to avoid the collision, killing the bus driver and 4 passengers and injuring 26. The Board made recommendations to FMCSA to develop and implement a plan to deploy technologies that can reduce fatigue-related accidents and assess the effectiveness of fatigue management plans. The Board went further to recommend that commercial vehicles be equipped with collision warning systems with active braking and electronic stability control systems.
Packaged together with the Osseo investigation was another fatigue-related accident that occurred near Turrell, Arkansas. This time the rollover involved a motorcoach transporting 29 senior citizens to a casino in Tunica, Mississippi. The fatigued driver inadvertently took an exit ramp at 70 mph and overturned. The roof of the vehicle separated from the body, allowing all 30 occupants to be ejected. The bus had no passenger lap/shoulder belts, and the driver was not wearing his belt. Fourteen passengers and the driver were killed.
Mexican Hat, UT
In April of this year the Board completed its investigation of a motorcoach rollover accident that occurred near Mexican Hat, UT. The accident bus with 52 passengers was part of a 17-motorcoach charter returning from a three-day ski trip. The normal route from Telluride, CO to Phoenix was closed due to snow, and the motorcoaches diverted to an alternate route through Utah.
Again, the Board found that the driver was fatigued which resulted in the motorcoach leaving the roadway at 88 mph. The motorcoach overturned, and the entire roof of the motorcoach separated from the body. Fifty of the 52 passengers were ejected. As a result, 9 passengers were killed 43 passengers and the driver received injuries. The Board found that the cause of the accident was fatigue, but again the severity of the accident was attributed to the motorcoach’s lack of an adequate occupant protection system.
If you are keeping count, that’s 35 fatalities and 92 ejections in only 4 accidents. Most of them were students or senior citizens. We also have 2 ongoing investigations in Victoria, TX and Sherman, TX where a total of 13 people died which I can brief you on later if we have time.
Since 1998 the Board has investigated 33 motorcoach frontal and rollover accidents. In these accidents, there were 255 full or partial ejections and 123 fatalities. These crashes clearly demonstrated that passengers who are thrown from their seating compartments or ejected are the most likely to be injured or killed. These numbers are not perception, they are reality. And this reality paints a bad picture of the motorcoach industry. Right now the public perceives motorcoach travel as safe, but this perception could change. A year and a half ago the public’s perception of highway bridges was safe. Nobody thought twice about driving over a bridge. But after the collapse of the Minneapolis Bridge, folks began to have doubts, and highway officials across the country were being asked if their bridges were safe. Since we last met, the Safety Board has testified twice before congressional committees concerned with motorcoach safety and several bills have been introduced. I’m not sure if perceptions are changing, but there appears to be increased concern.
Motorcoach Passenger Protection
I’m sure you are doing everything that you can to prevent an accident from occurring, but let’s face it, accidents are going to happen. So what can you do to mitigate some of the injuries and fatalities and avoid turning an unhappy incident into a national tragedy?
The short answer is occupant protection for your passengers. When the Safety Board investigates an accident we examine not only the cause of the accident, but also determine the cause of the injuries or fatalities. As a result, we make recommendations to mitigate or eliminate those causes. One of the biggest causes of injuries and fatalities in motorcoach accidents occurs when passengers are thrown from their seating compartment, especially if they are ejected from the vehicle.
The Safety Board has been making recommendations to NHTSA on motorcoach occupant protection since 1968. In 1999, the Safety Board published a special investigation report on Bus Crashworthiness Issues where we asked NHTSA to take a systems approach to requiring better occupant protection for motorcoach passengers. We still want them to do that, but let’s face it, it has been 10 years and we still have no requirements. As a result, the Board continues to see many of the same occupant protection problems in accident after accident.
NHTSA is making some recent progress. In December 2007, NHTSA performed a frontal motorcoach crash test and in February 2008, they performed two tests on motorcoach roof strength and occupant survivable space through the MGA Research Corporation, under contract to NHTSA, both of which were observed by Safety Board staff. In addition, a week after the Board’s issuance of the Mexican Hat report, Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that he has ordered a full review of motorcoach safety and will create a Departmental Motorcoach Safety Action Plan which he is directing be completed in August of this year.
So what can you do today? In your next motorcoach purchase you can do something that Australia has required since 1994. It’s something that the European Union has required since 1997. It’s something the state of Texas will require on all motorcoaches chartered for school trips beginning in 2011. It’s something that Greyhound recently announced will be on its newest fleet of motorcoaches, and its something many of your competitors will soon have. ….. It is lap/shoulder belts.
Lap/shoulder belts are not the total solution and the Board still maintains its stance that a systems approach to motorcoach occupant protection is needed to ensure that other components such as motorcoach roofs and window glazing are strong enough. But this is an action that you can take right now, and you might just find that it makes good business sense.
Let’s look at who really cares about safety. For years the auto manufactures argued that safety doesn’t sell. Now of course they all clamor for those five star crash ratings. Do you think you could possibly sell a minivan in this country without a five star crash rating?
So when you are marketing your services to potential customers, I bet there is not one of you in this room that doesn’t emphasize the safety of your fleet. You, like me are in the safety business and your survival in many ways depends on the safety record of your business. What you might find is that lap/shoulder belts may give you a competitive advantage when marketing your services because if you have lap/shoulder belts and your competitors don’t, then you have something to bargain with other than just price.
Let me ask: How many of you have school age children? Ok, I can see that this is a, (how can say), “more experienced crowd”. Now, how many of you have school age “grandchildren”? It’s pretty special isn’t it?
Ok, if you were the local school official and you were contracting for a motorcoach trip and you had a choice between one company that offered lap/shoulder belts and one without. Which one would you choose? Before you answer, I can tell you that school officials may be perceived as cheap but they are anything but risk takers, especially when it comes to kid’s safety. They will go with the safe decision every time, even if the cost is a little more. They know that you as a parent (or a grandparent) will hold them accountable for their decisions.
Perception vs Reality
Let’s talk a little about perception vs reality.
As you know, the reality of commercial aviation travel is that it is one of the safest modes of transportation. Yet many people irrationally perceive it as being unsafe and refuse to fly. For example we are all aware of football announcer John Madden’s legendary fear of flying and of course his $800,000 MCI E4500 45-foot custom shell motorcoach called the “Madden Cruiser”. But just this month, Tony Kornheiser left Monday Night Football because of his fear of flying. These are smart folks, but for some reason there is a disconnect between perception and reality.
Similarly, you and I, of course, know that motorcoach travel is also one of the safest modes of transportation, but when accidents and fatalities do occur, the public’s perception of the safety of motorcoach travel can be badly damaged, and once they perceive something as being unsafe it is very hard to change their minds. Perhaps the reason that people’s perceptions get blown out of proportion is that motorcoach accidents are almost always news-worthy, often on a national level. They are news-worthy because they often involve multiple fatalities and injuries, but in addition, if the accident involves students or senior citizens, there is an emotional element to the story because these passengers are perceived as a vulnerable segment of the population. Now you know the demographics of your customers better than I, but I suspect these groups make up a large percentage of your customer base. So every day you are taking the risk of having the image of your company and the image of the motorcoach industry tarnished by a major motorcoach accident.
Let me close with the most telling and most disturbing quote in the local papers after the motorcoach accident in Atlanta where seven Bluffton University students died. It came from the father of one of the students who died. He was referring to a picture of the interior of the motorcoach and he said, (and I’m paraphrasing) “Look at that seat, it is in perfect condition. Why did the seat survive and my son died?” That student was of course ejected from the motorcoach. But quite frankly, I am tired of answering that question from parents and I can assure you that you don’t want to answer that question either.
When tragic accidents occur it is the Safety Board’s job to determine the cause and make recommendations to prevent them from happening again. But we are not alone in our desire to prevent accidents. You and I are partners in this cause. So when accidents occur, my recommendation to you, is to view them as an opportunity to do something different; find a maintenance improvement, implement a new operational policy, provide better training, buy a new motorcoach with the latest safety technology, etc. etc. but take action and do something different. Each step you take will bring you closer to an accident-free environment and your actions will reassure the public that you are serious about safety and that you continue to want their business. We owe it to our passengers, our employees, our families, our industry, and our community.