Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you here in San Francisco during your annual conference. I’d like to thank Vic Parra and the United Motorcoach Association for inviting me here today to discuss motorcoach safety and the NTSB’s vision for the future.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the NTSB, let me briefly describe what the Safety Board is all about. We are an independent Federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation—railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline—and issuing safety recommendations to prevent future accidents. The mission of the Safety Board is to determine an accident’s probable cause. Our goal is to figure out WHAT happened and then, more importantly, WHY it happened, so that we can work to prevent similar accidents in the future.
To perform this important service, we draw on relatively limited resources. Our staff comprises fewer than 400 people, covering all modes of travel; and our annual budget is $79 million. I offer this comparison: Our annual budget would fund the DOT for less than 11 hours! And yet, since our inception 40 years ago, the Safety Board has investigated about 138,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface transportation accidents. In addition, the Safety Board has issued more than 12,600 recommendations in all modes of transportation. Although we do not have the authority to regulate safety, our reputation and our perseverance in follow-up on safety recommendations have resulted in an 82 percent acceptance rate.
And so, it is my privilege to represent here today an agency that is dedicated to the safety of the traveling public. With that said, I want to thank the UMA—and all its members—for your continuing efforts to improve motorcoach safety on America’s roadways.
Although the nation has seen highway-related transportation fatalities decrease by 2 percent from 2005–2006, the annual loss of more than 40,000 people on our roads is a national tragedy. Highway fatalities account for nearly 90% of all transportation deaths. In spite of the fact that the total number of fatalities on the road decreased in 2006, the Safety Board will never be complacent in its mission to improve safety and thereby decrease these numbers even further.
As you know, in an average year, 631 million passengers travel by motorcoach. Bus travel remains one of the most popular forms of travel, accounting for more passengers than either commercial air or rail. And, yes, while 2005 and 2006 saw the number of fatalities in motorcoach accidents increase, fatal motorcoach accidents remain rare events. Intercity motorcoach travel is one of the safest modes of transportation. However, this reputation for safety is dependent on how effective we are in preventing accidents—both the Safety Board and the UMA.
In the last 3 years, the Safety Board has published five major motorcoach accident reports and completed many more motorcoach accident investigations. In fact, as you all may have seen in the news, we are currently investigating two very recent motorcoach rollovers that occurred in Victoria, Texas, and Mexican Hat, Utah. The Safety Board has been tireless in its pursuit of recommendations on proper vehicle maintenance, adequacy of FMCSA oversight, and motorcoach crashworthiness. We have now added more recommendations to the motorcoach safety list—in particular, recommendations on driver cell phone use and bus fire safety.
You will recall that just over 2 years ago, the Safety Board investigated the Wilmer motorcoach fire, which destroyed a motorcoach carrying elderly evacuees from the predicted path of Hurricane Rita near Dallas, Texas, on September 23, 2005. The 44 passengers needed to be carried or assisted onto the motorcoach by firefighters and nursing staff; this effort alone required almost 2 full hours. About 15 hours into the evacuation trip, the right rear tag axle tire caught fire and quickly engulfed the entire coach. Twenty-three passengers were unable to escape the blaze and perished.
Two issues associated with the fire were emergency egress from motorcoaches, and fire resistance of motorcoach materials and designs. 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, though injuries and fatalities related to motorcoach fires are an extremely rare event, motorcoach fire reporting data are incomplete. The Safety Board also found that early detection of potentially hazardous conditions in a wheel well area is critical to prevent tire fires. Our investigation showed the potential for catastrophe when passengers are unable to quickly exit a burning motorcoach. We cannot allow this tragedy to be repeated.
As a result of its investigation, the Safety Board made a number of recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, to develop a fire protection standard for motorcoach fuel systems; to develop fire detection systems to monitor the temperature of wheel well compartments; and to evaluate current motorcoach emergency evacuation designs by conducting simulation studies and evacuation drills. We also asked the FMCSA to continue to gather and evaluate information on the causes, frequency, and severity of bus fires, and to conduct ongoing analysis of those data.
In 2008, the Safety Board will hold meetings on several important motorcoach accident investigations. We will be releasing our report on the Atlanta, Georgia, accident, involving the Bluffton University baseball team, which occurred on March 1, 2007. In this accident, the bus driver was southbound on Interstate 75 with 34 passengers. At about 5:30 a.m., he departed the left lane, also an HOV lane, onto an exit ramp. The motorcoach traveled at highway speed up the exit ramp, which ended in an elevated “T” intersection with Northside Drive, an overpass road above I-75. After failing to negotiate the intersection of Northside Drive, the motorcoach collided with the concrete bridge rail, and four passengers were ejected. The motorcoach then overrode the bridge rail, rotated clockwise, and fell onto the interstate, landing on its driver side and ejecting six more occupants. This horrific accident resulted in fatal injuries to the driver, his wife, and five passengers. Seven passengers were seriously injured.
The U.S. Congress is now considering the “Bluffton University Safety Act of 2007,” which calls for NHTSA to conduct comprehensive scientific research to determine the direction of future regulatory requirements for motorcoach transportation. As you may know, NHTSA also announced in August 2007 that it will be crash testing motorcoaches to examine crashworthiness and structural integrity, along with seat restraints, as part of its “approach to motorcoach safety” program. This program is based on many Safety Board recommendations from as far back as the 1980s. In addition, the NHTSA program will analyze motorcoach fire safety.
The first crash test of a full-size motorcoach into a rigid barrier at 30 mph took place a month ago, on December 14, at the Vehicle Research and Test Center in Ohio. NHTSA was responsible for setting test parameters and conducting the test. However, the NTSB sent representatives to observe the test—the first of its kind performed by the U.S. government on a motorcoach—and we will be analyzing the recorded data and video. The Safety Board has been an advocate of crash testing for motorcoach safety and occupant protection for decades.
This year, the Safety Board will also hold a meeting on the Osseo, Wisconsin, and Turrell, Arkansas, fatal motorcoach accidents. The Wisconsin accident occurred in the early morning hours of October 16, 2006, near where a tractor-semitrailer had previously overturned and blocked the westbound lanes and shoulder of the interstate. In the darkness, the lead motorcoach in a group of four—all of which were carrying members of a high school marching band—struck the overturned tractor trailer, killing the bus driver and 4 passengers and injuring 35 other passengers. The Arkansas accident involved a motorcoach that was traveling at a witness-estimated speed of 70 mph when the bus driver veered off an interstate exit ramp. The motorcoach overturned completely, killing the driver and 14 passengers and injuring 15 others.
One of my particular interests is safety technologies for commercial vehicles. The Safety Board has placed collision prevention through enhanced vehicle safety technology on its Most Wanted List of safety improvements. The “Most Wanted” list was established in 1990 to focus attention on critical changes needed to reduce accidents and save lives. We added collision warning technology to the list last November because NHTSA has yet to provide the Safety Board with any information regarding its interpretation of commercial vehicle testing or any timeline for future actions to mandate use of this technology. Unaccountably, this inaction stands in spite of the January 2007 NHTSA report that yielded findings of statistically significant reductions in rear-end crashes through combining collision warning systems and automatic cruise control systems—and its May 2005 report showing the potential to reduce rear-end crashes by 10 percent through the use of this vehicle safety technology.
We will continue to discuss in our accident investigation reports that it is crucial to look at how the use of appropriate technology can help reduce these avoidable, preventable accidents. It is time to implement safety improvements that provide crash mitigation—and time to enter a new era where safety technology will also help us prevent accidents.
In preparing for today, I wanted to also focus my remarks on moving forward in our efforts to promote safety. According to the DOT, the good news for America is that motor vehicles and other forms of transportation are the safest they have ever been in history. In fact, during 2004, NHTSA performed a study that highlighted the saving of 328,551 lives from 1960–2002 through vehicle safety technologies.
These safety technologies include crash avoidance systems aimed at preventing rollovers through electronic stability control, systems that warn against lane departures, systems that detect drowsy drivers, and collision warning systems for buses. Today’s technology can provide vehicle-to-vehicle communications, and many highway agencies are increasingly using intelligent transportation systems to more effectively communicate with heavy vehicles on the road, such as through dynamic curve warning systems. In addition to reducing fatalities and injuries, such technologies can provide a huge economic benefit. Every day, 19,000 crashes occur on America’s highways—at a cost exceeding $230 billion a year! Even closer to home, most of you are acutely aware of the enormous cost of a single motorcoach accident; one preventable accident can literally put you out of business.
According to the FMCSA, trucks and buses now make up more than one-third of the traffic stream on many rural interstate highways. FMCSA statistics also indicate that human error is the single greatest cause of crashes involving trucks and motorcoaches. Therefore, if we are to improve the safety of our highways, we need to focus on the vehicles that represent the increasingly larger proportion of the traffic. The single greatest opportunity for improving commercial vehicle safety performance is to also improve the performance of drivers. It is essential to integrate vehicle safety technologies with highway safety design.
The incorporation of road-based systems into our highway infrastructure directly correlates with improvements in driver safety, operations, and vehicle maintenance. Vehicle Infrastructure Integration, a DOT initiative, will provide drivers with a sophisticated means of obtaining information about the route. What do YOUR drivers need to know? How about route-specific road closure and work zone status technology that provides real-time, location-specific weather and roadway information from sensors embedded in the roadway? Such sensors can provide information about fog, standing water, or freezing rain. There are even currently available motorcoach driver simulator software programs to assist in training your drivers to compensate for hazardous road conditions and driver errors. These technologies hold great promise for providing both the motorcoach operator and drivers with a powerful set of tools for closely monitoring vehicles, weather, the roadway, and—in time—other vehicles on the road. One of the most important influences on improving road safety rests with motorcoach companies that operate with safety as a top priority, employ safe drivers, and integrate smart vehicle technologies.
Although motorcoach travel is 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 the 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. Technology available today can help ensure public safety. While I am encouraged by industry’s willingness to develop and use innovative safety technologies, our government must also be more supportive by finding ways to help manufacturers and operators, providing incentives to encourage them to adopt unmandated technologies, and changing existing rules that hamper the use of new safety systems. What does it mean to consider safety technologies as bridging the gap to the future?
Being proactive, avoiding preventable accidents, and anticipating government legislation can be beneficial to your company. Think of your competitors who have installed safety technologies into their vehicles and the success stories they report. While the NTSB investigates the causes of accidents and makes recommendations to prevent them, we are looking to those of you in the industry that have already invested in emerging technologies—and are experiencing great success and achieving higher levels of safety.
I am confident that highway automation and vehicle technologies can greatly improve safety today and into the future. We have much work to do to ensure that the safety benefits of these systems become a reality. It is you—the motorcoach operators, manufacturers, owners, and drivers—who will determine the effectiveness of these technologies and assist in their continued development. As these systems evolve, I fully expect that the Safety Board will be an active participant in understanding their implications. I am here today to encourage all of you to join with us in the pursuit of the safest, most reliable motorcoach fleet possible, to invest in technology that increases safety and thereby also promotes motorcoach travel.
Let me say that our nation’s transportation system is, in fact, very safe. The men and women who work hard every day to operate the system and keep it safe have our sincere admiration and appreciation. That said, the Safety Board is committed to improvement.
As you continue through the remainder of this week, attending the various exhibits and listening to the multitude of speakers, remember this: Think about the total package of safety—from the human operator aspect, to the vehicle, to the roadway environment. This responsibility extends from the government to industry, from the operator to the driver. What you accomplish here collectively can increase your contributions to safety. Working together, we can foster the partnership of safety through the future.
Keeping all passengers safe while riding in America’s motorcoaches is our primary mission, a goal shared through our collaboration with you, the UMA. As I said earlier, your industry has a notable safety record, but you cannot rest on past safety accomplishments. Today’s highway environment—as well as tomorrow’s—demands that you explore new ways to increase the safety of your passengers, and the NTSB will continue to work with you toward that goal. Again, thank you for inviting me to be here with you today.
Speeches & Testimony