WASHINGTON — After a drunken driver on a California highway back in 1968 slammed into a bus carrying passengers to Las Vegas, killing 19, investigators said a lack of seat belts contributed to the high death toll. But 45 years later, safety advocates are still waiting for the government to act.
Over the years, the National Transportation Safety Board has repeated its call for seat belts or some other means to keep passengers in their seats during crashes involving large buses used for tours, charters and intercity passenger service. About half of all such motorcoach fatalities are the result of rollovers, and about 70 percent of those killed in rollover accidents were ejected.
Hundreds of motorcoach passengers have died and even more have been injured, many severely, since the board made its initial recommendations.
“In 1998, my father was launched like a missile (out) a bus window and landed on his head on pavement. He is now permanently brain damaged and cannot even take care of himself,” one woman wrote regulators. “This issue has been around for decades and it needs to change, NOW, before more people die or are severely injured like my father.”
In 2009, the safety board said government inaction was partly responsible for the severity of injuries in a rollover crash near Mexican Hat, Utah, which killed nine skiers and injured 43.
Then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised the department would act to improve motorcoach safety, including requiring seat belts. Last year, when that still hadn’t happened, Congress wrapped bus safety improvements into a larger transportation bill, which was signed into law. Regulations requiring seat belts on new buses were due in September, but are still under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Motorcoaches typically cost between $350,000 and $500,000, according to the American Bus Association. Seat belts would add about $13,000 to the price of a new bus.
So far this year, 23 people have been killed and 329 injured in crashes, according to the organization’s unofficial tally.
Commercial bus operators fought seat belts for decades, but opposition began to weaken after a high-profile accident in 2007 in which a bus carrying Ohio’s Bluffton University baseball team plummeted off a highway overpass near Atlanta.
Five players, the bus driver and his wife were killed. Twenty-eight others were injured, including some students who are still trying to put their lives back together, said John Betts of Bryan, Ohio, whose son, David, was among those killed.
Bus manufacturers have recently begun including seat belts on most new buses anyway, said Dan Ronan, a spokesman for the American Bus Association.
And even if the government were to issue regulations tomorrow, it would likely be years before all have safety enhancements.
The industry opposes requiring that existing buses be retrofitted with seat belts. Retrofitting is more expensive than adding belts to new buses.
Generations of buses have come and gone without seat belts since the 1968 accident that prompted NTSB’s first recommendation. Autopsies showed most of the passengers survived the crash, but were badly injured and unable to escape the fire.
If the bus had seat belts, it is likely that more passengers would have escaped, the safety board said.
“We have worked too hard for too long for such a common-sense thing to be held up by people that don’t see it as significant,” said Betts, who lobbied to get the legislation passed. “If their son or daughter or wife or husband were killed ... perhaps that would get it off their desk.”