The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that the probable cause for a motorcoach accident that led to seven deaths in Atlanta last year resulted from the driver confusing the Interstate high occupancy vehicle (HOV)-only left exit ramp for an HOV through lane.
The driver Jerome Niemeyer, 65, failed to slow as he approached an exit ramp on March 2, 2007, ultimately resulting in the deaths of five Bluffton University baseball players as well as Niemeyer and his wife.
Also contributing to the accident, the NTSB found, was the Georgia Department of Transportation’s (GDOT) failure to place adequate traffic control devices to identify and distinguish the two different HOV lanes, as well as the absence of an appropriate occupant protection system on the motorcoach. The driver’s age may have also contributed to the tragedy, the NTSB found. Though the major cause found is still poor signage.
“The safety issue at hand is a highway marking, labeling issue,” American Bus Association (ABA) President & CEO Peter J. Pantuso said.
Evidence of this lies in the fact that numerous other accidents had occurred at the same I-75 HOV left exit lane that the Bluffton accident took place on. According to the Columbus Dispatch, NTSB chairman Mark V. Rosenker noted in an NTSB meeting on July 8, that all nine accidents involved drivers from out of state or outside of Atlanta, who likely mistook the exit for a through lane.
The board also said that while quite a few signage improvements had been made, more work would likely be needed in the future with advisory exit speed limits and pavement markings to distinguish the exit from the through lane.
The Bluffton incident has resulted in five recommendations made from the NTSB to the Federal Highway Administration concerning the uniformity of specific requirements, standards and criteria in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The NTSB has also given five recommendations to the GDOT for signage improvements.
Since the findings, the GDOT announced plans to replace all HOV lane signs on metro Atlanta interstates by March 2010, according to spokesperson David Spear.
Two congressional acts were also proposed following the Bluffton accident, though neither has been passed. Eight months after the accident, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) proposed a new motor-coach safety bill. The Motorcoach Safety Act of 2007 would require seat belts on charter buses and passenger buses that travel from state to state. Also required would be changes targeted at preventing passengers from being thrown out windows and strengthening bus roofs.
Also following the accident, Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio), whose Congressional district included Bluffton University, became a proponent of “The Bluffton University Safety Act,” which sought to update motorcoach regulations. Gillmor passed away in September 2007, and the act has now been adopted by Congressman Bill Schuster (R-Pa.) to promote the most extensive scientific study of motorcoach safety.
Pantuso and the ABA have been championing the act. “For more than a decade, ABA has been going to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and asking them to conduct research using coaches,” Pantuso said. “And for more than a decade, we’ve been rebuffed by NHTSA. Now in the wake of this accident, NHTSA is moving forward and doing the research that we’ve asked for. So we’re happy to see them undertaking the work that they’re doing right now, and doing it with sound science as its backdrop. We very much look forward to the findings they come up with over the next year.”