By Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison
Beginning on Jan. 1, 1968, a revolutionary new safety device designed to protect passengers in high-speed collisions was required in every automobile sold in America. The device was a seatbelt. But the groundbreaking law requiring seatbelts for U.S. passenger vehicles had one exception: buses. Today, millions of Americans travel on buses every year because it often represents the most affordable option to visit friends and families across the country. Unless the bus owner voluntarily provides seat belts and stronger windows and roofs, which most do not, bus passengers have no choice but to travel without these basic safety protections most people take for granted.
Tragically, when bus accidents happen, there are often preventable injuries or deaths. Seatbelts and other crucial bus-safety measures are especially important because more than half of all motorcoach fatalities over the past 10 years occurred as a result of rollovers, and 70 percent of the individuals killed were ejected from the bus. The recent deadly crash in New York that killed 15 passengers and injured many more was a horrific reminder that we must take action now. This is why I have joined with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to introduce legislation to overhaul and dramatically increase the safety of buses to reduce deaths and serious injuries caused by these accidents. Congress must not wait for another deadly motorcoach accident before we pass comprehensive bus-safety legislation.
Sen. Brown and I have become strong advocates for this critical issue because both of our states have experienced several tragic and preventable bus crashes. In March of 2006, two students from Beaumont West Brook High School in Texas were killed and 21 people injured after the charter bus they were traveling on 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 this problem by requiring seatbelts, stronger windows and crush-resistant roofs so that buses can better withstand rollovers and passengers are not thrown from their seats.
According to the American Bus Association, there were more than 720 million passenger trips by motorcoach in 2009, covering more than 1.73 billion miles. A recent study says bus travel has outpaced both air and rail transportation as the fastest growing mode of transport. Yet the Department of Transportation still 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 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, mostly providing charter buses for school and group trips, that are taken out of service because of extensive safety violations and then quickly begin operating under a new name. This allows these 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 require motorcoach 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.
Passing comprehensive safety legislation is a commonsense solution to a problem that will continue to grow as more Americans choose to travel by bus. Sen. Brown and I have been pushing this legislation since 2007, and it is time for Congress to get on board and move forward before more lives are wasted in tragedies that are entirely preventable. How many more families must lose loved ones before we have the courage to make buses safer? My hope is none.
Hutchison is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
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