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Remarks at Motorcoach Expo, Orlando, Florida
Jim Hall
Motorcoach Expo, Orlando, Florida

Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here with you in Orlando. I want to thank Vic Parra, Steve Sprague, and the United Motorcoach Association for inviting me to be here today to discuss motorcoach safety. Before I begin, let me introduce the members of my staff who are with me today. They are Mr. Joe Osterman, the Director of our Office of Highway Safety, Ms. Barbara Czech, a Biomechanical Engineer with the Office of Highway Safety, and Jamie Pericola, from my office.

As you know, interstate motorcoaches have consistently been a safe mode of transportation over the years. In an average year, more than 360 million passengers travel 28 billion miles by bus in North America. In a 10-year period, from 1989 to 1998, there were 54 motorcoach occupant fatalities -- .01% (one hundredth of one percent) of the 419,171 fatalities that occurred on our nation's highways during that time. In 1997, motorcoaches averaged .04 (four-hundredths) crashes per million miles traveled, as compared with 1.9 crashes for passenger cars and 2.5 crashes for large trucks.

This is a remarkable record. However, the Safety Board focuses a great deal of attention on transportation modes that carry large numbers of our citizens. Therefore, just as with aircraft safety, motorcoach safety has always been of special importance to the National Transportation Safety Board. This is especially true now as the motorcoach industry experiences tremendous growth, while at the same time, other vehicular traffic is also on the increase. In addition, we aren't building many new roads in this country, and many of the roads that buses use are already over capacity. Without diligent and sustained efforts to improve motorcoach safety, these factors could easily jeopardize that safety record and place your passengers at greater risk.

As you may know, over the past year, the Safety Board has focused significant resources on heavy truck and bus safety issues. The UMA has actively participated and assisted the Board in this effort, which has included the completion of several significant reports on motorcoach issues and three public hearings on motor carrier oversight, heavy vehicle safety technology, and the safety implications of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Next week, in New Orleans, the Board will conduct the last in its series of public hearings, when we will explore not only the 1999 Mother's Day motorcoach crash that claimed 23 lives, but also issues concerning commercial driver's licenses and driver medical certifications.

Let me briefly review the results of these efforts for you:

In January 1999, the Safety Board adopted a report on motorcoach issues based on our investigations into two accidents in that occurred in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1995, and in Stony Creek, Virginia in 1997. These two accidents were typical of other motorcoach accidents the Board has investigated over the years and they involved factors that have potentially catastrophic consequences, such as driver fatigue and poorly maintained or out-of-adjustment brakes. Both of the carriers involved had received overall satisfactory ratings from the Office of Motor Carriers, yet they had received unsatisfactory ratings in the driver and vehicle elements of the overall review.

As a result of our investigations, the Board recommended, among other things, that the Department of Transportation (DOT) change the safety fitness rating methodology so that adverse vehicle or driver performance-based data alone could result in an overall unsatisfactory rating for the carrier. For example, if a passenger carrier does not meet the vehicle factor rating because of out-of-service vehicles, that determination would be enough to rate the carrier unsatisfactory overall. The Board also recommended that motorcoach operators provide passengers with pre-trip safety information, much like that received by airline passengers. During the Board Meeting for this report, Board staff used a UMA safety briefing video as a demonstration of what could be done to improve such safety briefings.

In April, the Board conducted a public hearing on motor carrier oversight issues in Washington, D.C. During that hearing, the Board heard testimony from UMA representatives and others about the operating differences between truck and motorcoach carriers. It was clear from the testimony that improvements in federal, state, and carrier oversight need to be made. I'm hopeful that we'll be seeing some of those improvements from the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. However, the Safety Board continues to research a wide range of oversight issues, such as the nature of compliance reviews and the accuracy of DOT accident data. This coming year, the Board will examine a number of possible recommendations on improving motor carrier oversight to assist the new motor carrier agency as it defines its mission.

In August, the Board conducted the second in its series of public hearings regarding truck and bus safety. While in Nashville, we examined advances in heavy vehicle technology. From the information developed at the hearing and during our accident investigations, the Safety Board remains convinced that collision avoidance technology; disc brakes, in combination with electronic braking; and stability control technology can all greatly enhance transportation safety.

We also believe that the use of on-board recorders can dramatically increase a motor carrier's ability to ensure its fleet's safety. During the hearing, we discussed impediments that may limit the application of these technologies. As a result, the Board is examining how regulatory roadblocks can be removed and what tax and insurance incentives could be applied to enable carriers to effectively use this equipment on their vehicles.

In addition, the Board is aware of the legal, privacy, and proprietary implications of recording systems need to be addressed in such a way that protects the safety of the travelling public as well as the privacy rights of the operators. We'll sponsor a symposium, on April 25th and 26th in Crystal City, Virginia, to discuss some of these key issues.

In September, the Safety Board adopted a long-awaited special investigation report on bus crashworthiness. This special investigation was conducted to determine whether additional measures need to be taken to better protect both motorcoach and schoolbus occupants. The report analyzed 40 bus and six schoolbus accidents, together with information gathered at a Safety Board public hearing held in Las Vegas in August 1998. The report discusses a number of critical motorcoach safety issues, such as the:

    · effectiveness of Federal motorcoach bus crashworthiness standards and occupant protection systems;

    · discrepancies between different Federal bus definitions; and

    · deficiencies in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting Systems bus ejection data.

As a result of the special investigation, the Safety Board found that the overall risk to occupants in motorcoach accidents involving rollover and ejection can be reduced significantly if the occupants can be kept within the seating compartment throughout a collision. As a result, we recommended that NTHSA develop performance standards for motorcoach occupant protection systems that take into account rollovers and frontal, side, and rear impact collisions. We also recommended that NHTSA develop performance standards for motorcoach roof strength, taking the current window dimensions into account, that will provide the maximum survival space for all seating positions. In addition, the Board recommended that the DOT, in coordination with bus manufacturers, finalize standard definitions and classifications for each bus body type, and include those definitions and classifications in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

In October, the Safety Board conducted its third truck and bus safety public hearing, this time to examine the safety implications of NAFTA. The Board examined what the Mexican, Canadian, and American governments are doing to ensure highway transportation safety in cross-border operations. Prior to the hearing, I also traveled to Ottawa and Mexico City to discuss this issue with government and industry officials. Last week, the White House announced that the delay in fully opening the borders would continue until the DOT could ensure that every Mexican truck or bus entering the United States met all of our federal safety standards. We are continuing to work with the DOT Inspector General on this issue, and expect the Board to consider recommendations concerning these operations soon.

Just last week, the Board adopted the final report of the Burnt Cabins, Pennsylvania, Greyhound Bus accident. The accident occurred about 4 a.m. on June 20, 1998, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A 1997 MCI 47-passenger motorcoach drifted off the right side of the roadway into an emergency parking area, and struck the back of a parked tractor-trailer. Twenty-three people were on board the bus; the driver and six passengers were killed and the other 16 passengers were injured.

The Safety Board found that the busdriver's alertness had been reduced because he had taken an over-the-counter sedating antihistamine and bus company's scheduling practices had caused him to be fatigued. The Board also found that the severity of the accident was increased because the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission routinely permitted non-emergency parking in pull-off areas within the highway clear zone.

The Board made a number of recommendations - including one to UMA to inform its members about accident and to encourage them to:

    · revise their driver scheduling practices to reduce scheduling variability that could result in irregular work-rest cycles; and

    · include all traffic violations in their drivers' records and consider those violations during driver safety assessments.

Next week, the Board will conduct the last of its truck and bus safety public hearings. As many of you know, last year on Mother's Day, a motorcoach was involved in a single vehicle accident in New Orleans, Louisiana. The motorcoach departed the roadway, hit a guardrail, vaulted over a cart path, and impacted an earthen mound. Several passengers and the unbelted bus driver were ejected out of the front windshield. Twenty-two passengers were killed in the accident. A few weeks later, the driver died from his injuries.

Although the Board is still investigating this accident, it is clear that problems exist in the Commercial Driver's License program, especially in the carriers' ability to conduct meaningful background investigations of potential drivers. We plan to examine those problems during our hearing. We'll also examine how the medical certification process for commercial drivers can be improved, and how drivers' use of illicit, prescribed, and over-the-counter drugs can be monitored more effectively. Last week, the Board also adopted several recommendations to the DOT, the modal administrations, and the Food and Drug Administration on the use of non-prescription drugs by commercial vehicle operators.

As you can see, the Board considers motorcoach safety issues to be at the forefront of the public's safety agenda. And, we'll continue to focus attention on motorcoach issues as they arise. The advent of the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives the motorcoach industry a unique opportunity to have your concerns heard, to be proactive, and to develop safety improvements specifically for motorcoach transportation. As I said earlier, your industry has a notable safety record, but you cannot rest on your laurels. Today's - and tomorrow's - highway environment demands that you explore new ways to increase the safety of your passengers, and the National Transportation Safety Board will continue to work with you towards that goal.

Again, thank you for inviting me to be here today.