WASHINGTON — Deadly bus crashes over the past decade have claimed dozens of lives, including college baseball players in Atlanta, Vietnamese Catholics in Texas, skiers in Utah and, this month, gamblers returning to New York's Chinatown.
The New York accident, which killed 15 passengers and critically injured several others, as well as recent bus accidents in New Hampshire and New Jersey have rekindled interest in bipartisan legislation that would require regulators to act on longstanding bus safety recommendations.
A Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee was holding a hearing on the bill Wednesday. Senators were expected to press Transportation Department officials to explain their slow progress implementing bus safety recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board, some of which have lingered for more than a decade.
The recommendations, directed at large buses known as motor coaches, include requiring seatbelts for all passengers and electric onboard recorders that keep track of how many hours a driver has been behind the wheel.
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The NTSB also has urged that buses have stronger roofs that aren't easily crushed or sheared off to prevent passengers from being ejected in a rollover and to ensure they have enough space inside to survive. The board wants bus windows to be glazed using new, more advanced methods so they hold together even when shattered. And, the board wants windows and exits that are easier for passengers to open.
About half of all motor coach fatalities in recent years have occurred as the result of rollovers, and about 70 percent of those killed in rollover accidents were ejected from the bus, according to the Transportation Department.
"It's frustrating to be on the sidelines and get called to yet another accident in (New York) and know the issues that we've made recommendations on are stagnating," NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman told The Associated Press. "If the regulatory agency had moved on their rulemakings, or the Congress had required these things to be done, we might have been able to prevent some of these fatalities."
The safety board has scheduled a public forum in May on the Transportation Department's progress in implementing bus and truck recommendations.
In November 2009, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released a plan for issuing regulations that address many of the NTSB recommendations. The only recommendation that has been fully implemented is a ban on texting by bus and truck drivers. The department also has proposed rules requiring seatbelts for all bus passengers and electric onboard recorders, and a ban on handheld cellphone use by bus and truck drivers while driving. Those rules have not been made final.
On Wednesday, LaHood said the department, working with police agencies in 13 states, was conducting surprise bus inspections at popular tourist destinations. He also announced new bus driver testing standards to ensure uniformity across state licensing agencies and reduce the likelihood of licensing and testing fraud. The regulations will also require new drivers to obtain a commercial learner's permit prior to obtaining a commercial driver's license.
Writing in his blog, LaHood promised the department will issue new, mandatory training standards for entry level commercial bus drivers by this fall.
Defining what kind of training a driver must have before obtaining a commercial driver's license, and improving testing standards for drivers has been an especially thorny issue. Congress has been pressing for the development of driver training and testing standards for 20 years. The department began working on new rules in 1993, and issued the rules in 2004. But those rules were successfully challenged in court as too weak and at odds with the department's own safety data.
The Transportation Department has been working on the latest round of driver training and testing regulations for nearly six years.
The NTSB said 60 percent of the fatal motorcoach crashes the board investigated over a 12-year period were the result of problems related to the driver.
Administration officials point out that LaHood has significantly stepped up enforcement of bus safety regulations compared to eight years of inaction during the Bush administration. During the last three years, the department has placed 75 motorcoach carriers out-of-service for safety violations. During the three years previous, only 46 carriers had been shut down.
A nearly identical bill with wide bipartisan support was poised for Senate passage last year until Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., placed a hold on the measure. With Congress closing in on adjournment, and other pressing legislation waiting to be voted on, the bill died.
Coburn said the bill wasn't "cost-effective." His spokesman, John Hart, said Coburn will probably oppose the bill again if it isn't changed.
"Congress should resist the urge to exercise its regulatory reflexes and avoid adding costly and unnecessary mandates on private companies and consumers, which could range from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars a year," Hart said in an email.
The American Bus Association estimates the cost of implementing the recommendations for new buses at as much as $89,000 per vehicle. A typical new motorcoach costs about $500,000
But Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, co-sponsor of the bus safety bill with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said he believes passengers would be willing to pay more for safety improvements.
"These are relatively minor costs that are amortized over the life of a bus," he said in an interview.
There are about 750 million passenger trips a year on motorcoaches in the U.S., the bus association said.
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