Bus Safety Buzz Kill

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that motor coaches be equipped with seat belts. And for nearly a quarter of a century, bus manufacturers have been quite adept at ensuring that never happens. Compartmentalization, don’t you know. No need. Envelope of safety, and all that.

In August, however, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a proposed rulemaking that would require new motor coaches to have lap-shoulder belts. Specifically, the new regulation would establish a new definition for motor coaches and amend FMVSS 208, Occupant Crash Protection, to require the installation of lap/shoulder belts at all driver and passenger seating positions, and the installation of lap/shoulder belts at driver seating positions of large school buses. (Six states, Florida, Texas, California, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York, and some municipalities currently require seat belts on school buses.)

And last month, 17 deaths in two separate crashes have put a bee in the Senate’s bonnet, jump-starting sub-committee hearings. On March 31, the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security held a hearing entitled Ensuring the Safety of our Nation’s Motorcoach Passengers. The crashes have also revived interest in the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2009. The comprehensive bill, proposed after numerous well-publicized motor coach crashes would have required, among other things, seat belts at each seating position; advanced glazing to prevent passenger ejection; electronic stability control;  improved firefighting equipment; direct tire pressure monitoring systems and regulations to improve motor coach roof strength. (Despite broad bi-partisan support, it died at the end of last year’s session, after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) but a hold on the measure.)

While the legislative process grinds slowly away, another low in bus safety creeps across the zeitgeist – the party bus, with mood lighting, swanky wrap-around seating – no seatbelts – and surround sound. New York City’s Party Ride bus has been giving the hoi polloi a night of livin’ large since 1998. Recently, an enterprising young man in Massachusetts unveiled one of the latest versions, aimed at the college set in Providence and Newport Rhode Island, and Boston, and planned as a national franchise. According to the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, Nathan Benedetti’s Buzz Bus has seating for 35, standing headroom “and plenty of space for guests to mingle, socialize, or even dance on a wooden floor with its own laser light show.”

Disco dancing in a moving conveyance makes sense on a cruise ship. We are dubious about the wisdom of busting a move on a school bus. That’s right. The Buzz Bus is a tricked-out school bus, which, by regulation is subject to FMVSS 220, 221 and 222. These school bus-specific rules impose body joint-strength requirements, increased structural resistance to rollovers and occupant protection in form of compartmentalization – high-back, well-padded and well constructed seats. Of course, compartmentalization only works (if at all) when the seats are configured in short rows, not continuous benches along the perimeter of the interior.

On March 12 a fatal accident on I-95 in the Bronx killed 15 occupants aboard a casino bus and injured 18. Two days later, a motorcoach, on a scheduled run from New York City to Philadelphia, left the roadway and struck a concrete headwall of the New Jersey Turnpike, and an embankment, killing the driver and injuring 44 people.

In another attempt to stave off regulation the bus industry is pushing legislation that would require NHTSA to do more research before issuing new standards, give the industry up to 18 years to retrofit buses and federal money to pay for it. Sweet!

Any law or new regulation that doesn’t require a retrofit of existing buses won’t throw the brakes on the Buzz Bus, or any of its progenitors. So, party on – and pray for a safe trip.