Rules requiring seat belts on buses were first proposed in 1968, following a deadly crash that claimed the lives of 19 people. 45 years later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has finally issued a federal rule mandating seat belts on new motorcoaches and other large buses.
The new rule, while a step in the right direction, can hardly be viewed as a true win for consumers. New tour buses and buses that provide service between cities must be equipped with seat belts starting in late 2016. However, existing buses will not be retrofitted – leaving millions of passengers without a seat belt each year.
The motorcoach industry opposes retrofitting; arguing buses not designed for seat belts may not be strong enough to withstand the repeated pulling of straps. They also claim it would be cost-prohibitive, placing estimates at $35,000 per bus. Since many motorcoaches are on the road for about 20 to 25 years, it could be decades before all passengers are protected. And, unfortunately, school buses and city transit buses are exempt.
It’s been a contentious debate. On one side, safety advocates joined with crash victims and their families in favor of more regulations, which were recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Opposing these regulatory changes were industry groups, such as the American Bus Association, commercial bus companies, and other lobbyists.
Unfortunately, the NTSB can only pass along its recommendations to others within the Department of Transportation because it lacks the authority to impose rules. Another federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has that power but has taken an excruciatingly slow approach over the decades.
Things reached a tipping point on March 2, 2007, when a charter bus carrying 33 baseball players and coaches from Bluffton University plunged off a highway ramp. Of the 36 people on board, seven were killed.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced a bill co-sponsored with former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas in 2007, again in 2009 and finally in 2011. While Brown’s Tour Bus Safety bill became law on July 6, 2012, it has not yet been fully implemented. Entitled the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act, it is based on NTSB recommendations, some of which were first proposed in 1968.
According to the NHSB, an average of 21 people in large buses are killed each year in crashes, and nearly 8,000 others are injured annually. Seat belts could reduce fatalities and moderate-to-severe injuries by nearly half. About half of all motorcoach fatalities are the result of rollovers, and about 70 percent of those killed in rollover accidents were ejected from the bus.
Brown said Seat belts are “a common-sense safety measure that is long overdue.” He urged the NHTSA to move forward on two other safety measures that have been sought nearly as long seat belts — windows that prevent passengers from being ejected from buses in rollover crashes, and stronger roofs that aren’t crushed in such crashes.
“Seat belts on commercial buses delayed 45 years” by Joan Lowy, USA Today/AP, November 17, 2013
“Deadly crash of bus carrying Bluffton University baseball team behind new rule on seat belts” by Allison Grant, The Plain Dealer, November 20, 2013
“Gov’t to Require Seat Belts on Large Buses” by Joan Lowy, ABC News/AP, November 20, 2013.