Unfortunately, although seat belts are mandatory on planes, and have been required safety equipment in cars since 1968, passenger buses are not required to install this most basic and ubiquitous safety feature. This lack of obvious protection needlessly leaves millions of Americans vulnerable to serious injury and even death on our nation’s highways each and every day. It is a tragic fact that in recent bus accidents, more than half the fatalities occurred as a result of rollovers, and 70 percent of the individuals killed were ejected from the bus. Seat belts and other basic safety improvements could have protected many of these accident victims.
If we heard reports about airplane crashes as often as we hear about bus crashes, there would be Congressional outrage. We should hold buses to the same high safety standards. Minimum and reasonable safety standards that are taken for granted in other modes of transportation, such as cars and planes, are absent in most buses today.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and I have introduced legislation (The Motor-Coach Enhanced Safety Act of 2011) to overhaul and dramatically increase the safety of buses to reduce deaths and serious injuries caused by these accidents. Our bill, S. 453, has already passed the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and we hope to bring it to a vote in the full Senate soon.
Sen. Brown and I are strong advocates for this critical issue because both of our states have experienced several tragic and preventable bus crashes. In 2006, two students from Beaumont West Brook High School in Texas were killed and 21 people injured after their charter bus overturned. The bus did not have seatbelts, and the oversized windows that covered much of the bus were not impact resistant. Our legislation would directly address these shortcomings by requiring seatbelts, stronger windows and crush-resistant roofs so that buses can better withstand rollovers and passengers are not thrown from their seats.
Congressional action is needed because the Department of Transportation has not acted on many basic passenger safety protections even after the National Transportation Safety Board suggested a lengthy list of bus-safety improvements, including several cited in our legislation-- safety belts, crush-resistant roofs and stronger windows.
Another critical issue that directly affects bus safety and must be addressed is that of ‘reincarnated’ carriers. Reincarnated carriers are bus companies, often providing charter buses for school and group trips, that are taken out of service because of extensive safety violations and then quickly begin operating and are on the roads again under a new name.
This practice allows these risky carriers to continue operating without having to address and correct any of their — often multiple — safety violations. This issue was one of the factors that led to a devastating bus accident in Sherman, Texas, that claimed 17 lives in 2008.
Our bus-safety legislation would close this loophole by requiring motor-coach vehicle safety inspections of all new bus operators to ensure they are able to operate safely before they carry a single passenger, and it would help stop the growing problem of ‘reincarnated’ carriers.
Now is the time to pass the Brown-Hutchison comprehensive bus safety legislation. Our proposal presents a sensible pathway to help prevent many senseless tragedies. As Americans climb on board buses and hit the road this summer, let us be sure that we are doing everything possible to make their trip a safe one.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas and is the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation