Image: Site of bus crash
AFP - Getty Images file
A picture shows the site where a bus that was carrying U.S. tourists collided with a truck near the Egyptian city of Aswan on Dec. 26, 2010, killing nine Americans.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/11/2011 5:26:11 PM ET 2011-04-11T21:26:11

In late December, in the early dawn, Frances Arlene Einhorn, a retired teacher from Los Angeles, died when her tour bus chartered by an American company traveling in Egypt from the southern city of Aswan to the ancient Abu Simbel temple, collided with a truck on a desert road. She was one of nine American tourists who died, said son Michael Einhorn, who flew to Egypt after the crash to help his father, who was injured.

“She was killed instantly. We were informed by the State Department that the bus driver was convicted of operating the bus in a negligent manner,” said Einhorn. “It’s heartbreaking because it’s a crash that could have easily been avoided.” A surviving passenger told him the driver was speeding, and traveling through the darkness without using lights, a well-known risk.

“My parents were on a bus on one of the most dangerous stretches of highway” in the country, said Einhorn, who spoke about his mother’s death days after a remembrance service held last month, on what would have been her 71st birthday.

This type of tragedy is not uncommon in Egypt. Bus crashes also killed six Belgian tourists in October and eight foreign tourists in November, and the country has one of the highest traffic death rates per person in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Growing threat to tourists
Fatal bus crashes overseas are not tracked, safety experts say, but news reports are telling: In early January, a sightseeing bus in northern India overturned and plunged into a gorge, leaving 22 tourists dead. In March, about 26 people were killed in Brazil when a tourist bus collided with a truck. Just weeks ago, more than 20 people were killed when a crowded bus swerved off a mountain road and tumbled off a cliff near Cusco, Peru.

“When we go to another country, we think of vaccinating ourselves against infectious diseases, but the biggest danger to anyone traveling overseas is being in a crash,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, the North American director of Make Roads Safe, a global initiative, and director of road safety for the FIA Foundation for the Automobile and Society, a nonprofit group based in London. Both groups produced a recent report, "Bad Trips,” that warned that global road crashes will continue to rise exponentially.

Motor vehicle crashes are the top killer of healthy Americans abroad, according to the U.S. State Department, surpassing terrorism, crime, infectious disease and plane travel.

Bus safety in the United States has seen a resurgence of interest, due to a number of high-profile crashes, including one last month in New York in which 15 passengers were killed. But in recent years, the number of motorcoach carriers placed out of service due to safety violations increased and overall fatalities decreased, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

“In this country, at least there are regulations; in many other countries, there aren’t any,” Dinh-Zarr said.

Bad roads, dangerous driving
More than 90 percent of the world’s road deaths occur in low- to middle-income countries, according to WHO. As a result of rapid development, many countries have more vehicles, but the infrastructure often cannot keep pace. Roads and vehicles are frequently poorly maintained, and laws, enforcement and driver’s training are often weak.

“There’s no universal standard for bus travel,” said Dr. Stephen Hargarten, professor and chairman of emergency medicine, and associate dean for global health at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “But bus companies with credible safety records are very important to tourism dollars. Tourism pressures governments to act a little more forcefully.”

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Kate Simpson, president of Academic Travel Abroad, an educational tour operator and study abroad provider based in Washington, D.C., said the current King of Morocco in recent years implemented measures because he deemed “the safety of tourists absolutely essential.” In a country with many windy roads through the Atlas Mountains, buses are now equipped with recorders that monitor driver speed, she said. “At any point, Moroccan police can pull drivers over.”

Ideally, travel agents and tour operators, when working with local companies for the first time, ask about or request documentation for a number of safety-related issues, including insurance coverage, references, safety records, driver training and security checks, and may also regularly conduct site inspections of equipment.

“It’s easy to hang up a shingle,” said Simpson, a member of the NTA, a trade group that represents about 3,000 travel professionals, but she and others recommend choosing established companies with a good track records.

Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, based in New York, said that 24/7 assistance from companies in country is also critical. She doesn't discourage her clients from traveling to undeveloped parts of the world, but said it is essential to take proper precautions.

Research and planning ahead
“I love Antigua as an island, but it has some of the worst roads in the Caribbean,” Wilson-Buttigieg said. “It’s dangerous to jog or bike on the roads, let alone take buses.” She urges clients to take well-established car services with drivers familiar with the safest routes.

“Nothing is ever 100 percent, but you can do everything you can to entrust the lives of your clients to responsible partners,” said Diana M. Hechler, president of D. Tours Travel in Larchmont, N.Y.

The motto “you get what you pay for” is particularly true in travel. In certain countries, “you do not want the low-ball operator," she said. Hechler relies on industry networks and organizations to learn about companies that have already been vetted. “Picking the right partner is critical. You can’t take anything on faith.”

Guide books have not traditionally included much information on road safety. “They should do the same due diligence on buses as they do for restaurants” Dr. Hargarten said. The “Bad Trips” report found that the international tourism industry provided little advice to alert tourists to country-specific road safety problems.

“We don’t want to discourage people from traveling” Dinh-Zarr said, “but it is critical to be prepared. You can really save your life by asking simple questions.” For example, ask about drivers, vehicles and what roads will be taken. “It should be a standard route the tour operator or driver has taken before,” she said. Roadsthat are well-maintained and well-lit, of course, are preferable to smaller roads, and may help save lives due to better emergency medical services access.

'Buyer beware'
Furthermore, tourists should seek road safety information from the U.S. Embassy in the country they are visiting. Prior to leaving on a trip, they should check with their destination country's embassy within the U.S.

Story: Why you should take the bus on your next trip

To help prevent crashes like the one that took his mother’s life, Einhorn is in the preliminary stages of developing a logo program based on a set of safety standards for tour companies. “People have blind faith,” he said. “I’d like to see companies live up to their promises so that safety is their biggest concern.” Change, he said, will only come if companies take responsibility for the vendors they hire.

Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, a travel risk management company, said there is huge need for an international “harmonized system” to oversee bus service providers, as regulation of buses and drivers “is incredibly horrific in many countries.”

The topic has been discussed at recent professional conferences, he said. “Everyone agrees that this needs to be addressed, but is largely ignored.” Outside the U.S., Canada, the European Union, and other select countries, McIndoe said, it is “buyer beware.”

Rochelle Sobel, founder of the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), said many travelers assume the safety standards that exist in the U.S. are the same overseas. “It is important to know the local roads, laws and customs before you go” because many crashes can be avoided, said Sobel, whose son Aron died in a 1995 bus crash in Turkey with 22 others, two weeks before he was to graduate from medical school.

Ride at your own risk
ASIRT developed Road Travel Reports that detail road conditions, dangerous highways to avoid, driver behavior and police enforcement for more than 150 countries.

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In many countries, particularly in rural areas, taking a bus at night is strongly discouraged because headlights are often turned off, as drivers erroneously believe it saves the batteries. Other common safety problems include: speeding and reckless driving; overloading, which sets off the center of gravity; old equipment, including tires that are bald or without sufficient air; brake failure; and steering wheels that fall off.

Additionally, economic pressures to work long hours result in overtired drivers. Frequently, too, after a crash, companies close down and reopen under new names. “This is a very serious problem,” Sobel said. And the death toll may be even graver than statistics reveal, as some countries do not want to look bad so underreport serious crashes, she said.

In February, Kimberly Harrington experienced a bus crash when she and her husband traveled to Nicaragua, where her husband has family, to celebrate their recent wedding. On the way to a beach resort with out-of-town friends, the bus hit a pedestrian on a four-lane highway that cut through residential neighborhoods near Managua. Harrington said although travel occurred during the day, the bus was new and from an established company, and the driver rested and driving carefully, placement of the highway in a densely populated area and the lack of speed bumps were most likely the main causes of the crash, which highlight the critical role of infrastructure.

One friend held the injured man, Harrington said, covering him with a shirt until the ambulance arrived, but he died later that night. “People were not surprised because this kind of thing happens frequently.” Locals, she said, call it “the road of death.”

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