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Remarks Before the United Motorcoach Association Motorcoach EXPO 2007, New Orleans, LA
Robert L. Sumwalt
New Orleans, LA

Good morning, and thank you for your kind invitation and warm hospitality.

I thought I would take just a few moments to bring you up –to date on some of the work the Safety Board has done recently involving motorcoaches, and to issue you a recommendation.

Restoring Public Confidence

Many of you know about us, but some do not, so let me begin with a brief description of what the Safety Board is all about. The National Transportation Safety Board is charged by Congress with improving the safety of the public by recommending changes in government and industry transportation policies, practices, and systems through independent accident investigations.

What does that really mean? It means we investigate major transportation accidents, figure out what happened, and then, more important, why it happened. And, finally, through recommendations to others, we try to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future.

In this way, we work to restore the confidence of the traveling public after a major transportation disaster. All of you are familiar with our role in aviation safety and the importance of having an unbiased, independent, investigatory agency determine the cause of aviation accidents and recommend solutions.

When accidents occur, especially aviation accidents, public anxiety heightens and the fear of flying escalates. Although not necessarily logical, this lack of public confidence could mean that fewer people will be willing to fly. However, many flyers derive considerable solace in knowing that the Safety Board is in charge of the investigation. They know that we will uncover whatever caused the accident and work to fix the problem. As a result, most people continue to have confidence in the industry and continue to fly.

American Airlines Flight 587

The most poignant recent example was the potential for hysteria following the American Airlines flight 587 that crashed into a Queens neighborhood on November 12, 2001, only 2 months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that involved the hijacking of 4 aircraft. Fortunately, the public had sufficient confidence in the Safety Board to allow our investigation to proceed and the true cause of the accident to beuncovered. My point is that bad things happen, and it is the Safety Board’s job to identify the problems, propose the fixes, and restore the public’s confidence in our transportation systems.

Your job is much the same. Fatal motorcoach accidents are rare events. But each time one occurs your company works hard to make changes to prevent it from happening again so that the public will continue to have confidence in one of the safest modes of transportation. We are partners in this endeavor and our reputations depend on how effective we are in preventing accidents.

2005 was not a good year in the motorcoach industry because 70 people died in fatal crashes. About half of these fatalities were motorcoach occupants. In fact, 23 people died in a single accident in Wilmer, Texas, making 2005 one of the deadliest years for motorcoach occupants since a 1999 accident that occurred right here in New Orleans.

Motorcoach Accident in New Orleans

I am sure you remember that 1999 Mother’s Day accident that left 22 passengers dead and injured 22 more. The motorcoach was traveling eastbound on Interstate 610 on a trip to a casino in Bay St. Louis when it departed the right side of the highway, crossed the shoulder, and went onto the grassy side slope alongside that shoulder. The bus continued on the side slope, struck the terminal end of a guardrail, traveled through a chain-link fence, vaulted over a paved golf cart path, collided with the far side of a dirt embankment, and then bounced and slid forward upright to its final resting place.

The Safety Board’s investigation found that although the 46-year-old driver possessed a current commercial driver’s license and medical certificate, he suffered from several life-threatening medical conditions of the kidney and heart.

The Safety Board determined the probable cause of that accident was the driver’s incapacitation due to his severe medical conditions and the failure of the medical certification process to detect and remove the driver from service. Other factors that may have had a role in the accident were the driver’s fatigue and the driver’s use of marijuana and a sedating antihistamine.

As a result of this accident, the Safety Board issued several recommendations to the FMCSA to develop a comprehensive medical oversight program for interstate commercial drivers. These recommendations are currently on the Safety Board’s list of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements. The FMCSA has established a Medical Review Board to review the medical standards and is developing a national registry of certified medical examiners, but more needs to be done in developing a comprehensive medical oversight system to prevent a New Orleans event from occurring again.

One of the points I want to make in discussing this 7-year-old accident is that the Safety Board is not satisfied with just determining the cause of accidents. We are in the safety business for the long haul and stick with our recommendations until they are implemented. Understand that when the investigation is complete and headlines die down the Safety Board is still working, urging recommendation recipients to help prevent future accidents.

Wilmer, Texas, Motorcoach Fire

A few minutes ago I mentioned the 23-fatality motorcoach accident that occurred in Wilmer, Texas. This accident took place during the Hurricane Rita evacuation on September 23, 2005. A 1998 MCI 54-passenger motorcoach operated by Global Limousine Inc was traveling northbound on Interstate 45 with 44 passengers on board. The passengers were from an assisted living facility in Bellaire, Texas, and many needed to be carried or assisted onto the motorcoach by firefighters and nursing staff. The loading process took over two hours. About 15 hours en route and close to Wilmer, Texas, the right rear tag axle tire caught fire and the fire quickly engulfed the bus. The driver, 6 nursing staff-passengers, the parent of one of the nursing staff, and 14 patient-passengers were able to escape the fire. Unfortunately, 23 patients died in the fire.

In August, the Safety Board held a 2-day public hearing as part of the fact-finding phase of this accident investigation. Several topics were examined, including:

-The scope of the bus fire problem

-The source of the Wilmer motorcoach fire

-Fire propagation and fire detection and suppression

-Planning for and transporting people with special needs

-Motorcoach evacuations

-Government oversight of motor carriers and bus brokers

-Vehicle inspections and

-Driver training

One thing we’ve learned is that motorcoach fires are not uncommon events. There is about one every day of the week. However, injuries and fatalities are extremely rare, mostly because once the fire is detected, the motorcoach pulls over and the passengers exit relatively quickly. In the Wilmer, Texas fire the passengers were unable to exit quickly because they were not ambulatory.

This is something that we cannot allow to be repeated.

The Safety Board staff is completing the investigation, and the final report will be presented for the Board Members’ deliberation in a public sunshine meeting, a month from now, on February 21.

Motorcoach /Cell Phone Accident in Alexandria, Virginia

The last topic I wish to discuss today is driver distraction. Drivers can be distracted from the driving task in many ways, whether it is drinking or eating while driving, looking for something that dropped, dealing with passengers, changing the radio station, or talking on a cellular telephone. I suspect that at some time each of us in this room has been distracted for various reasons in a variety of vehicles. And, hopefully we all got away with it, without having or causing an accident. Millions of people are distracted in their vehicles every day and we don’t have millions of accidents every day, so you might be tempted to say, “What’s the big deal?” Well, while much of the time driving is a simple task, it only takes a moment of inattention to get into trouble. At highway speeds (70 mph), a 2 second glance away from the road means you have traveled about 240 feet, or more that ¾ of a football field without seeing where you are going.

About 19,000 highway accidents occur every day, and driving while distracted on roadways with constantly changing traffic, vehicle, and environmental conditions increases the likelihood that we will be one of the 19,000. To reduce our risk of being part of that statistic, driving is an activity that requires our full attention.

And at no time is our attention more critical then when transporting a busload of passengers.

The Safety Board recently completed an investigation involving a motorcoach driver who was talking on his hands-free cellular phone at the time of the accident. On November 14, 2004, a 44-year old bus driver operating a 2000 Prevost, 58-passenger motorcoach was traveling in the right lane of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia. He was taking 27 high school students and their chaperone to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon. The driver had driven the route previously. As the bus approached the stone arched Alexandria Avenue Bridge, the bus driver passed warning signs indicating that the bridge had a 10-foot 2-inch clearance in the right lane. Nonetheless, the driver remained in the right lane and drove the 12-foot bus under the bridge, colliding with the underside and side of the overpass. At the time of the accident, the 13-foot, 4 inch high left lane under the bridge was available to the bus, and in fact, the companion bus on this trip was in that lane just ahead. The accident bus came to a final stop about 470 feet beyond the bridge. The data recorder showed the bus driver did not apply the brakes prior to the collision with the bridge.

Witnesses and the bus driver himself reported that he was talking on a hands-free cellular telephone at the time of the accident. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.

The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the 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 clearance of the bridge.

The day after this accident, the motorcoach operator established a policy prohibiting the use of cell phones by its drivers

The Safety Board believes payment for transportation services creates an implicit contract between the passenger and the carrier that the carrier will transport the passenger safely and not allow the vehicle operator to take unnecessary risks. Motorcoaches typically transport 40 to 50 passengers per trip, creating the potential for significant injury or death to a large number of people in the event of an accident. In addition, like school buses, motorcoaches frequently transport children and other vulnerable groups, including the elderly. Consequently, drivers of all types of buses have a special obligation to provide the safest driving environment possible for the passengers in their care.

With that responsibility in mind, the Safety Board asked the FMCSA and the States to publish regulations or enact legislation to prohibit cellular telephone use by commercial bus drivers. In this way, we hope to prevent such cognitive distraction accidents from occurring in the future. Additionally, the Safety Board asked bus associations, including the United Motorcoach Association, to develop formal policies prohibiting cellular telephone use by commercial bus drivers.

As I mentioned earlier, the Safety Board is charged by Congress to determine the probable cause of accidents and make recommendations to prevent future occurrences. We don’t pull any punches and we call them like we see them. However, we also always try to be reasonable and practical in our recommendations. Perhaps that is why, historically, 82% of our recommendations get implemented. But we cannot do this alone and we are certainly not alone in our desire to prevent accidents. You and I are partners in this cause. So when accidents occur, your challenge is to view them as an opportunity to do something different--find a maintenance improvement, implement a new operational policy, provide better training, embrace a new technology, etc.--but take action and do something because to do nothing is irresponsible and to rely on chance to prevent the next accident is complacency.

Therefore, in the style of our accident reports, I would like to conclude with a recommendation to all of you. When accidents occur, and they inevitably will, take action, do something to make your company a safer place for your passengers, your employees, your families, and your community.

Thank you.