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Speeches

Remarks before the School Journeys Conference, London, England
Jim Hall
School Journeys Conference, London, England
5/19/1999

Good morning. It's a pleasure to be with you today to talk to you about an issue of great importance to the National Transportation Safety Board and to the school transportation professionals in this room-the safety of our children on the highways.

Before I begin, let me also introduce the Safety Board employees with me: Mr. Joseph Osterman, our Director of the Office of Highway Safety; Ms. Jeanmarie Poole, Chief of the Report Development Division; Ms. Deb Smith, my Special Assistant; and Mr. Romney Philpott, my Staff Assistant.

Since 1994, I have had the privilege of leading an organization that strives to follow the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, one of our greatest presidents, who said that: "The care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government."

Throughout my tenure at the Safety Board, we have investigated some of the most catastrophic transportation accidents in the history of the United States, such as the ValuJet DC-9 that crashed in Miami, killing 110 people; the USAir 737 that crashed in Pittsburgh, killing 132 people; and the TWA 747 that crashed in New York, killing 230 people.

We've also had several significant railroad and highway accidents during the same timeframe. In Silver Spring, Maryland there was a head-on crash between two passenger trains that resulted in 11 fatalities and 26 injuries. This past April, an Amtrak train struck a tractor-semitrailer that was hauling steel at a grade crossing just outside Chicago, Illinois, killing 11 people and injuring more than 100 people. And-just last week, a motorcoach ran off a road in New Orleans into an embankment, killing 22 passengers.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigates all modes of catastrophic accidents, including marine, railroad, aviation, highway, and hazardous materials and pipeline. The accidents I've mentioned all received wide coverage by the media. What isn't so well publicized is the fact that approximately 42,000 people are killed and 3.5 million people are injured in U.S. highway accidents every year.

Let me give you a perspective of the money spent as a result of these highway crashes each year:

    ¬ Motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. cost over $150 billion or 92.3 billion pounds per year. That's the equivalent of 356 pounds for every person living in the U.S.

    ¬ Each fatality resulted in lifetime economic costs to society of almost 511,000 pounds.

    ¬ The average lifetime cost for each critically injured survivor of a highway crash is almost 440,000 pounds.

    ¬ Property damage in all crashes amounted to about 32 billion pounds each year.

But of much more importance to me is the tragic cost in lives that can never be calculated. I am here today, not just as the Chairman of the Safety Board, but also as a traveler, one of America's 180 million drivers, and as a parent.

Because I am a parent, it saddens me that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 6 to 14. In 1997, children under the age of 15 accounted for 5 percent of vehicle occupant fatalities (over 2,100 deaths) and 9 percent of vehicle occupant injuries.

Despite this high number of child fatalities in all types of highway vehicles, school transportation fatalities do not significantly contribute to these numbers. School transportation is considered one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States.

On average, 33 children die in school bus-related traffic crashes each year, but only about 10 of these fatalities occur on board a school bus. However, we at the Safety Board are committed to making the transportation of children safer in all vehicles.

In the United States, we have yellow school buses that have an excellent safety record and are required to meet specific safety standards. In 1977, special vehicle safety standards were mandated by the Department of Transportation based on the Safety Board's accident investigations and our resulting safety recommendations. These standards included:

  • Rollover protection
  • Higher seatbacks
  • More padded seat cushions
  • Limited spacing between the seats
  • Joint body strength in school bus body panels
  • Window retention and release
  • Fuel tank protection and
  • Flammability protection

When you stop to consider that each year 440,000 school buses travel 4.3 billion miles, and transport 23.5 million children, or about 50% of the school children to or from school or school-related activities, this safety record is laudable.

I understand that the United Kingdom does not have yellow school buses, that you transport about 1.6 million children in mini-buses and motorcoaches (or public service vehicles), and that you rarely have a child fatality in these vehicles. This is truly an outstanding record - and I congratulate you.

I also want to congratulate you on your progressive thinking - I understand that the European Union requires mini-buses and motorcoaches (public service vehicles) to have seatbelts. As you probably know, the United States does not.

Although our small school buses (under 10,000 pounds) are required to have lapbelts, our larger school buses are not. Two States, New York and New Jersey, have required lapbelts on their large school buses. And, the State of Florida recently passed legislation to put lapbelts on their school buses.

In August 1998, the Safety Board held a public hearing on bus crashworthiness, in which we invited expert witnesses from the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and the United States to discuss the survivability of passengers on school buses and motorcoaches.

The information shared by some of your countrymen, including Mr. Robert Missen and the late Dr. Dusan Kecman, have caused us to re-evaluate our position on the effectiveness of compartmentalization.

Although compartmentalization has worked well over the years, some recent school bus accidents have shown that we may need to consider other types of safety features. We have found that especially in accidents involving severe side impacts, multiple impacts, high-speed rollovers, and ejections, compartmentalization does little to protect children.

In the last 3 years, we have investigated several school bus accidents that resulted in 9 fatalities and 121 injuries and that have caused us to re-examine the use of restraint systems on school buses.

Let me show you some photographs of the school buses involved in those collisions. The most serious accidents involved tractor-semitrailers and trains traveling about 50 or 60 miles per hour or 80 to 96 kilometers per hour.

[The following portion of the speech was accompanied by an audio/visual presentation]

    On August 14, 1996, near Flagstaff, Arizona, a school bus driver traveling about 50 mph bent over to pick up her soda can and lost control of the bus. She ran off the roadway and the bus overturned. Two of the school bus occupants received very serious injuries-one (a talented and gifted student) is now brain-damaged and the other is a paraplegic. Thirty others were injured.

    On April 10, 1997, near Monticello, Minnesota, a tractor-semitrailer dump truck ran a stop sign (traveling about 50 mph) and was struck by a school bus traveling 45 mph. A secondary impact occurred when the right front corner of the semitrailer struck the left side of the school bus. A third impact occurred when the rear of the school bus rotated into the right side of the semitrailer. Three school bus passengers, in the rear of the bus, and the truckdriver were fatally injured. The school bus driver and 10 bus passengers were injured.

    On March 10, 1998, near Buffalo, Montana, a school bus driver stopped at a passive grade crossing and looked both ways. A student then came up from the rear of the bus to ask the bus driver to put in a cassette tape. Distracted as he drove across the railroad tracks, the busdriver never saw the freight train traveling 60 mph that struck the rear of the bus and killed two brothers in the back of the bus. The busdriver and three other students were injured.

    On September 1, 1998, near Holyoke, Colorado, a school bus was accelerating from a stop when a tractor-semitrailer struck it in the left rear at highway speed. Two children were ejected from the rear and received serious injuries. Nine other passengers and the busdriver sustained minor injuries.

    On September 18, 1998, near Holmdel, New Jersey, a dump truck and a school bus collided in an intersection after the school bus driver ran a red light. The school busdriver and a bus passenger received serious injuries and the truck driver and five bus passengers received minor injuries.

    On May 1, 1999, near Mayhill, New Mexico, a pickup truck towing a recreational vehicle crossed the centerline of a roadway and struck a school bus traveling the opposite way. The recreational vehicle penetrated the passenger compartment of the bus killing 6 children and injuring 20 other children. The recreational vehicle continued on, striking a pickup truck, killing its driver.

These accidents convinced me that we need to do more to protect our children. And we have. Because of the Safety Board's work in this area, the Department of Transportation has now taken some action. They are performing school bus crash tests which has not been done since the early 1980's by Canada, and in the late 1960's by the U.S. to determine what kind of forces the children are being subjected to in crashes. This information will enable us to perform complex computer simulations and analyze how passengers react--both with and without seatbelts. We should be able to use this information to make better decisions on the types of restraints that will provide the best protection.

By the end of the summer, the Safety Board will issue its "Bus Crashworthiness Special Investigation." This report will include information on bus-related accidents currently being investigated and the data on we have gathered.

In addition to the accidents I discussed, the Safety Board has investigated 4 other school-related bus accidents in which a total of 8 children were killed and 33 were injured in the last 2 years. These accidents involved non-conforming school buses -that is-vans or buses that did not conform to the Federal regulations that the yellow school buses I mentioned earlier are required to comply with. Although three out of four of these non-conforming vehicles were equipped with seatbelts, the children were not wearing them (nor were they required to).

Let me briefly tell you about these accidents:

    On March 25, 1998 in Sweetwater, Florida, a 15-passenger van transporting children to and from school, struck a transit bus at an intersection. Three children were ejected and another 4 children and one adult were injured.

    The next day, in Lenoir City, Tennessee, my home state, a 25-passenger specialty bus, that is mostly used for sightseeing in the Great Smoky Mountains, was carrying a school group to a music competition. While trying to make a U-turn on the interstate, the bus was hit by a tractor trailer. A student and a teacher were killed and 17 children and two adults were injured.

    On December 8, 1998 in Dublin, Georgia, a 15-passenger van, carrying HeadStart children, hit a pick-up truck. HeadStart is a child development program that serves low-income families. When the van hit the truck, the van spun around and hit an embankment; one child was ejected and killed. The other children had minor injuries.

    On February 16, 1999, in Bennettsville, South Carolina, a parent was taking six children home from a church daycare center in a van. This van pulled in front of a tow truck and was hit. Three children were killed after being ejected and other three children were killed by the impact. The driver received serious injuries.

Next month, we will release a special investigation report on these vehicles that will discuss the adequacy of the structural construction of the non-conforming buses; the adequacy of existing regulations and guidelines governing vehicles used to transport school children; and the adequacy of laws governing the use of restraint systems in vehicles transporting school children.

In addition to examining the safety of school buses, we are also studying crash protection for motorcoach occupants. As I mentioned earlier, we have investigated numerous motorcoach accidents that have highlighted our safety concerns. In the last five years, the Safety Board has investigated six motorcoach accidents which resulted in 42 deaths and 154 injuries.

Let me review just a few of them:

    On October 14, 1995, near Indianapolis, Indiana, a motorcoach, carrying 40 high school students, overturned on an exit ramp killing two passengers and injuring others. We found that the motor carrier involved had not maintained the vehicles' brakes. They also had numerous other vehicles with defects and should not have been operating. Yet, the federal agency responsible for safety oversight had reviewed this carrier's safety fitness nine times in an eight-year period and did not consider them unsatisfactory.

    On July 29, 1997, near Stony Creek, Virginia, a motorcoach carrying a driver and 34 members of a tour group drifted off the side of the road, down an embankment, and into a river where it overturned. One passenger died and 32 occupants were injured. The driver's duty-sleep periods had been inverted during the trip and he fell asleep.

    On June 20, 1998, near Burnt Cabins, Pennsylvania, a Greyhound busdriver ran off the road in a rest area, struck a tractor-semitrailer, pushing it into another tractor-semitrailer. The busdriver and 5 passengers were killed; 16 others were injured.

    On December 24, 1998, near Old Bridge, New Jersey, a motorcoach overturned into a ravine, killing 8 passengers and injuring 14 other passengers. Seven of the passengers had been ejected.

    On March 2, 1999, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the brakes on a motorcoach failed while it was descending a mountain. The driver applied the emergency brakes, downshifted, and turned off the bus-none of which stopped the bus. Eventually the bus hit a large rock embankment and rolled onto its side. An adult chaperone and one child were killed; the driver and 34 passengers were injured.

    This is a photograph of the New Orleans, Louisiana, accident that occurred last week that I spoke about earlier.

Many of the deaths in these accidents resulted from passengers being ejected from the bus. Similarly, most of the injuries resulted from passengers being dislodged from their seats.

Between 1968 and 1983, we issued 13 safety recommendations recommending seatbelts on motorcoaches as a result of our accident investigations. However, the Department of Transportation decided not to put seatbelts on motorcoaches because no one would wear them and because the cost benefit analysis did not warrant them because the safety record of motor coaches was good.

And, they're right, the safety record had been good. However, the situation is changing. Between 1987 and 1996, the motorcoach industry reported and average of 4.3 passenger fatalities a year. But, in the past 2 years, in only 5 motorcoach accidents, 42 passengers were killed and 154 passengers were injured.

We know that seatbelts are one of the most effective pieces of safety equipment in passenger vehicles. There is little we can do that would be more effective at saving lives than convincing people to wear seatbelts. In addition to our work on bus safety, the Safety Board has also recommended ways to improve child passenger safety in all vehicles.

We recommended that vehicle manufacturers provide integrated restraint systems that are designed specifically for children. Moreover, we also want them to offer adjustable rear shoulder belt anchorages to accommodate those children who have outgrown their booster seats, bus are not yet tall enough to fit into the adult shoulder belt.

The seatbelt usage rate has increased from 10 to 69 percent over the last 25 years. President Clinton has set a goal of 85 percent seatbelt use by the year 2000. Western European countries, Canada, and Australia have also shown us that seatbelt usage rates in excess of 90 percent are possible.

As you may have noted, many of the recent school bus accidents investigated by the Safety Board have involved large, heavy trucks. This is becoming an increasing danger on our roadways. Although trucks, buses, and passenger vehicles have always had to share the roads, congestion on these roads together with the mass of the vehicles using them, continues to increase.

Standard tractor-trailers have increased in length from 35 feet to 45-53 feet. Triple combination unit trailers can extend to over 90 feet long. Trailers are also a foot wider now. In addition, there are now twice as many tractor-trailers operating on U.S. highways as there were 40 years ago- and that's just articulated trucks.

At the same time, the number of passenger vehicles has tripled. We are studying a number of ideas that won't solve the problem-but at least they'll help mitigate it.

I understand that heavy traffic congestion is also one of your problems and that plans are underway to develop strategies to manage the problem. We look forward to hearing about your solutions, and perhaps we can "borrow" some of them to help us solve our problem.

Our first lady, Hilary Rodham Clinton, wrote a book, It Takes a Village. In it she said that "Nothing is more important to our shared future than the well-being of children." I know that we all agree. We all must do more to protect the well-being and safety of our most precious resource-our children. We can do that by putting children first when it comes to safety.

Thank you for inviting me to speak today-the work of the Safety Board has one purpose-to promote the safety of our nation's -and the world's -travelers. I hope you will continue to work with us toward that goal.

 

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