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Do Three-Point Seat Belts, Better Rollover Protection and Higher Insurance Rates Reduce Accidents?

In recent months, three-point seat belts, better rollover protection and higher insurance rates have become hot topics in the bus industry. I have lost track of the number of times these topics have come up in e-mails, on the phone and at various industry events. Operators complain that the feds keep looking for ways to increase operating costs in an industry that has had a good safety record but is not hugely profitable. In fact, much of the private sector bus industry qualifies as small business and may not be in a good position to deal with all of these increased costs.

Every so often I feel inclined to take advantage of my position as senior editor in the bus industry and get on my soapbox. This has become one of those times when I would like to share some thoughts on these topics with our loyal readers. After taking several steps backwards and looking at the entire situation I feel obligated to make three points. One is that our bus manufacturers and suppliers deserve a pat on the back for some major strides in bus safety in recent years. A second is that the feds seem to be putting too much effort into paperwork and dealing with accidents rather than improving safety to prevent accidents. The third is that bus operators need to do something to avoid getting saddled with all of these additional costs and procedures that might not help safety.

Manufacturers and Safety

A good place to start this discussion is with the manufacturers and suppliers.

I should begin by mentioning that the bus manufacturers and suppliers have made some huge advances in recent years. This is very obvious in the area of passenger entertainment. When I first started driving buses, the “entertainment system” was an AM radio mounted on the wall near the driver’s left knee. Since then we have gone through some fairly complex entertainment systems with video monitors and VHS players and now DVD. The current trend is to 110-volt outlets and Wi-Fi where passengers bring their own iPod, iPad or laptop on-board.

Since our primary issue here is safety, I need to take a moment to give the bus manufacturers and suppliers a well-earned compliment for advancing the cause of safety. There are a huge number of systems and components available today to improve bus safety. Many of them were not available even 20 years ago. While some of these are available as options, others have become standard equipment.

There simply is no way that I can remember and list everything in this category. I could start with mentioning improved steering and braking systems. The new adaptive and electronic sensing systems for braking are a major step forward in safety. Tire pressure and temperature monitors are now almost taken for granted. Backup cameras and rear sensors have substantially improved safety in what was always considered the most dangerous bus maneuver.

We can continue on with improved retarders – a substantial step up from the clutch and gearshift we had in the old days. Then, there are add-ons, like a GPS system, that can also help the driver. Perhaps one of the biggest improvements is going with a multiplex system. Not only does this allow components to interface with each other but it also permits remote monitoring of buses while in operation. Multiplexing has also permitted some major advances in electronic engines and transmissions. Clearly, our mechanics with wrenches are becoming technicians with computers. Our bus manufacturers and suppliers should get a well-deserved pat on the back for their huge advances in bus safety in recent years.

Drivers and Managers

Now that we have made all of these safety advances on our equipment, what areas remain that we need to address to improve safety?

Let me start by saying that there are times when bad things happen to good bus companies. This may well be only chance or the luck of the draw in many cases. I suggest that if you review the situations behind major bus accidents, you will see some obvious patterns. The National Transportation Safety Board produces reports on major bus accidents with their findings. In addition, there are a handful of bus experts who exchange notes and e-mails following major bus accidents. I will admit that we do not always agree with the NTSB. However, we pretty much agree between ourselves on the major causes of bus accidents.

Based on what we see, the area that could improve safety the most is working with drivers. Again, I need to compliment the manufacturers and suppliers for all they have done in recent years to make drivers safer. This includes improved braking systems, tire monitoring, retarders and electronic engines and transmissions. What the manufacturers and suppliers generally cannot deal with is driver training and fatigue.

Any review of major bus accidents will show that many are single vehicle accidents that usually happen on charters during the hours of darkness or early morning hours. Driver fatigue and particularly shift inversion is at the top of the list of causes. I note that this happens less frequently with scheduled service because the drivers tend to match their sleep patterns with their working hours. This type of accident also tends to happen less frequently with tours, again because they almost never run at night and have regular sleep patterns.

One has to question why the feds have not taken a stronger stand on fatigue and shift inversion. Yes, there are hours-of-­service laws but they do not adequately deal with some types of fatigue and shift inversion. It almost seems like the feds are more interested in dealing with accidents after they happen rather than preventing them in the first place.

If there is a second pattern that emerges from studying bus accidents, it might be poor management decisions. There are enough accidents that fit into this category to make it worth mentioning. Of course, the reasons may vary substantially. It may be something like assigning an inappropriate driver, asking drivers to work too many hours or do something unsafe, or not properly monitoring maintenance. It is interesting that so many other careers that could involve life and death decisions there are education, experience or testing requirements but nothing to determine whether bus company managers know what they doing.

When I owned Wisconsin Illinois Stages, we had an enviable safety record in spite of traveling on Wisconsin’s back roads in all kinds of weather. I would at least partially attribute that to three things. One is that no bus ever left our garage without either my manager or myself inspecting it. The second is that we had a fairly strict preventive maintenance program that sought to replace things in the garage and not at the side of the road. Third, we avoided asking drivers to work when they normally slept.

Safety and the Feds

All of this brings up the question of safety in regard to federal actions, decisions and regulations.

Let me start by mentioning Deregulation in 1982. While I do not see the feds moving away from Deregulation, I see it as having a negative impact on safety. Bear in mind that the primary intention of Deregulation is to increase competition and drive down prices. It does not take too much thought to realize that bus operators pretty much pay the same prices for fuel, buses, parts and office supplies. Hence, both drivers’ wages and maintenance end up being obvious places to reduce spending to be competitive.

I might also draw your attention to the disparity in how drivers are treated by public and private operations. The public transit agencies tend to be monopolies and are subsidized to insure that drivers’ wages are high to attract the best candidates. In comparison, private bus operations are deregulated and as a result, driver’s salaries typically are substantially less than with public operations. One has to question the logic of this inconsistent and polarized approach as well as its impact on passenger safety.

Next, we can talk about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and how it measures bus company safety. On the one hand, I would certainly give them credit for recently putting a number of bus companies out of business for safety reasons, including several Chinatown operators. This may well be the biggest crackdown of all time. On the other hand, their data and reporting system has come under substantial fire.

Early in 2014 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report reviewing the FMCSA and particularly its Compliance, Safety Accountability (CSA) program. It brought out two major problems with the CSA program. One is that the criteria used is not that pertinent to predicting crashes. The second is that there is insufficient information available to predict a forthcoming crash, particularly with smaller carriers. One of the results of this is that at least 10 national bus and truck associations (including the United Motorcoach Association and the American Bus Association) have called for the removal of CSA scores for operating companies from public view because they are unrealistic.

What GAO found is that a couple of unrelated maintenance or driver problems discovered during roadside stops do not necessarily predict a forthcoming major accident. It also found that with many of the smaller companies, it is impossible to gather enough information to be meaningful. I took some published statistics and determined that the average bus is involved in a fatal accident approximately every 6,000 years. Tell me what information you can gather to predict when that will happen?

Let’s go back to our original question. Do three-point seat belts, better rollover protection and higher insurance rates reduce accidents? The basic answer is no. Admittedly, they can be of some value during or after an accident, but none of them will actually reduce accidents.

Many of the experts will tell you that they would rather see buses with true compartmentalization rather than seat belts. Compartmentalization is passive and needs no passenger intervention to work. While seat belts may have some value in extremely rare rollover accidents, they can have a negative impact on safety in other situations like evacuations for fire, smoke or an oncoming train.

Recently the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed stricter manufacturing standards to insure more structural strength and fewer things rolling around inside a bus during a rollover accident. While I am in favor of additional safety, I do have some questions. One is that figures I have show that there are an average of two fatal bus rollovers each year with more than 36,000 commercial coaches on the road. This means that a bus will statistically average a fatal rollover every 18,000 years.

I might suggest that in the long run that same effort would save a lot more lives if it were applied to preventing the rollover in the first place. Following a fatal bus crash in Texas in 1952, the feds mandated push-out windows to allow easy escape in the event of a fire. My observation is that more people have been killed by falling out of push-out windows in a rollover accident than have ever been saved from a fire by them. In addition, putting increased structure at the top of the bus will make it more top-heavy and more likely to roll over.

Increased insurance costs will also not curtail accidents and may actually increase them. Admittedly, there are infrequent bus accidents that exceed existing insurance requirements. They are the exception and not the rule. What should be taken under consideration is that combining increased insurance rates with the competition of Deregulation will prompt some of the less affluent operators to cut corners with maintenance.

There are examples where a government reaction to one problem caused problems elsewhere. Many people are aware that the Titanic sinking in 1912 was followed by questions regarding sufficient lifeboats. This resulted in changes in the maritime law requiring more lifeboats. One of the boats required to take on more lifeboats was the SS Eastland, a boat already known to be “tender” or top-heavy. The SS Eastland turned turtle in 20 feet of water while tied to the dock in the Chicago River in 1915, killing 844 passengers and four crewmembers.

Let me make the suggestion that now would be a good time for bus operators and the national associations to push the feds in the direction of putting more emphasis on reducing accidents. Based on my research and observations, I would suggest that regulations preventing driver fatigue and eliminating shift inversion would do more for bus safety than anything else. A second suggestion would be a meaningful attempt at monitoring how a company is managed and management’s level of knowledge and expertise.

I would welcome comments from ­readers.

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