Although the motorcoach industry is justifiably proud of its exemplary safety record, one accident is one too many. Here are some of the issues operators should be conscious of, as well as some of the resources available to them.
The principal cause of motorcoach accidents, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), is driver fatigue. In its 1998 examination of two crashes determined to be emblematic of tour and charter safety failures, the NTSB found fatigue to be the overriding contributor to both crashes.
Addressing the issue of driver fatigue, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration crafted a new hours of service rule that has since been postponed pending further evaluation. The proposed rule was extremely controversial and provoked a firestorm of criticism from all corners of the motor carrier sector, especially motorcoach operators and their representative associations.
Both the American Bus Association (ABA) and the United Motorcoach Association (UMA) protested that buses were unfairly being lumped in with long haul truck drivers. While that distinction warranted Congressional, and most recently Small Business Administration, intervention, fatigue is an undeniable factor in most motorcoach accidents.
According to the NTSB, operators should avoid inverted sleep-duty cycles to prevent driver fatigue. The board contends that such interpretations of hours of service impede the ability of drivers to rest properly, and imperil their passengers. It recommends that regulation of inverted cycles be included in whatever form of hours of service revision takes place.
A potential contributor to driver fatigue is driver shortage. Bill Mahorney of the ABA says that the scarcity of drivers puts enormous pressure on motorcoach operators. He identifies the driver shortage as a central safety concern for the industry.
Hiring qualified drivers is also complicated by the dearth of information available to potential employers. In this case, industry representatives are agitating for more, not less, regulation. Stephen Sprague, COO of UMA, says the industry is a victim of its own good record in the regard. The infrequency of fatalities encourages regulatory agencies to put motorcoach concerns on the back burner, according to sprague.
Of paramount importance to both ABA and UMA is the establishment of some sort of driver database to provide medical and drug histories for drivers seeking employment. Sprague cites the 1999 Mother’s Day crash in New Orleans as an example of how uniform, thorough medical evaluations could keep unsafe drivers off the road.
The driver shortage also makes the need for effective driver training more pressing, and more difficult to achieve. While some companies, such as the Daecher Consulting Group, offer training courses over video and CD-ROM, there is no definitive source for safety instruction.
The ABA is currently cooperating with the Bus Industry Safety Council to develop training materials to serve industry needs. UMA’s affiliate, the Bus and Motorcoach Research and Education Institute, is also working to increase motorcoach training opportunities. Its efforts include the adaptation of trucker education programs for motorcoach purposes.
Drivers aren’t the only ones who require training, however. The NTSB recommends that all operators provide a safety briefing for passengers before they begin a trip. After interviewing survivors of serious accidents, it determined that a lack of preparedness contributes to confusion and panic that can result in fatalities.
Although the Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial planes to deliver safety information at the beginning of every flight, no commensurate rule applies to the motorcoach industry. What to do in the event of an accident, as well as emergency escape information, are briefing topics NTSB considers pertinent to overall industry safety.
“The [National Transportation] Safety Board concludes that emergency instructions can be crucial to a safe and expedient evacuation,” reads the 1998 report.
UMA produced a safety video similar to those used on aircrafts that is available to operators. The video covers tips for negotiating the motorcoach while in motion, as well as how to best react to emergency situations.
Importance of design
Individuals, whether working behind the wheel or riding as paying customers, are not the only factors to consider in motorcoach safety. The design and condition of the vehicle are also integral to the safety of all traveling in it.
Accident investigations by the NTSB fault bus construction for numerous fatalities.
Specifically, motorcoach emergency exits are often cumbersome and difficult to release when buses are not upright. In the case of rollovers, heavy or unwieldy pop-out windows or hatches may fatally impede passenger exits. Not only occasionally difficult to open, exits can collapse on escaping occupants.
The NTSB says manufacturers should design exits that are not only secure during travel and impact, but also relatively simple to open. The frequency with which senior citizens, as well as school children, benefit from motorcoach transportation makes this issue especially prescient. Those with physical limitations may find emergency exits mortally difficult to take advantage of.
Standards and specifications are set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the NTSB includes motorcoach crash testing by NHTSA in its safety recommendations. Of passengers killed in motorcoach accidents, a significant proportion is ejected through the windows.
Again, according to Sprague, the relative safety of motorcoach travel prevents expensive and time consuming comprehensive crash tests from being a priority for NHTSA and the requested action is unlikely to be taken. He says UMA would also like to see NHTSA review motorcoach design before any changes are instated.
“It’s presumptuous of the industry to advocate changes in design from one or two incidents,” Sprague says.
Motorcoaches also need to be maintained and in optimal condition to provide a safe travel environment. The NTSB recommends stricter passenger carrier compliance reviews in order to prevent vehicular malfunctions.
“If a carrier does not meet the vehicle factor rating due to out-of-service vehicles, that determination should be serious enough to rate the carrier unsatisfactory overall,” the NTSB says.
Until 1990, the U.S. Department of Transportation did not require annual inspections for commercial vehicles. Sprague says that only 25 states require inspection of commercial vehicles before issuing license plates. UMA wants universal annual inspections to be the rule.
“If every motorcoach has to be inspected before it is licensed and at least once a year after that, then the roadside enforcement community can begin to concentrate on the software, not the hardware,” Sprague says.