Compartmentalization Compartmentalized

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The new Secretary of Transportation of Ray LaHood is about to throw the commercial motor coach manufacturer’s favorite non-safety strategy off the bus. The Detroit News reported yesterday that NHTSA will be moving to require seat belts on motor coaches – a long overdue improvement. Bus manufacturers have fended off regulations for decades, arguing that occupants were adequately protected from crash forces by compartmentalization – the space around them enclosed by the seat backs behind and in front of them and the side structure.

Only one problem with the compartment – it was open on three sides. The panoramic picture windows so popular with passengers tended to pop out in a crash leading to fatal ejections; during a rollover, occupants were injured by contact with the roof , the luggage racks and other passengers tossed out of their own envelope of safety. The National Transportation Safety Board has been after NHTSA for at least 11 years to establish performance standards for commercial motor coaches in frontal, side and rear collisions and rollovers. In 1998, it published a study of 33 motor coach accidents resulting in 255 ejections. But, as one retired NHTSA staffer in charge of bus regulations once told SRS privately, the agency wasn’t interested in motor coach safety.

The Detroit News’ David Shepardson reported the agency’s acting administrator, Ron Medford’s assertions before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection that motor coach safety was now an agency priority: “I think it is true that NHTSA was slow to act…We are on it.”

This firm declaration for seat belts on buses is a u-turn from the agency’s previous public stance. In 2002, at a motor coach safety meeting, then-Associate Administrator for Safety Standards Stephen Kratzke assured the industry:

“What we will say is whatever we do is going to be based on solid data and a scientific analysis of the occupant protection situation. NHTSA and Transport Canada are not going to require changes to the current regulations just for the sake of quote “doing something” unquote. Changes that don’t improve occupant protection are a breach of faith with our respective publics and dishonor the memory of people who have died or been seriously injured in these vehicles.”

Look for that “solid data” when NHTSA publishes a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and for the industry to trot out its heretofore successful counter-arguments: motor coach travel is safe; seat belts are too costly and require a major engineering overhaul and compartmentalization works.