Florida bus accident illustrates need for seatbelts in buses

As a trial lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the tragic truck and bus accidents with which I am all to familiar is the crash of a bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team in Atlanta last March.

A Saturday morning crash of a Van Hool tour bus operated by Endeavor Bus Lines in Florida illustrates the failure of the US government to require seat belts in passenger buses. According to the Miami Herald report, “People got thrown everywhere.”  A similar Van Hool motor coach carrying the Bluffton University was involved in a fatal crash in Atlanta last March.  Several team members were ejected  and killed.  (We represent six of the surviving Bluffton team members in claims arising from that incident.)

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Standards in the U.S. do not require buses to have either seat belts (except for the driver) or laminated glass in side windows that would prevent passenger ejection. If the manufacturers spent as much on safety as they do on lobbyists, a lot of lives could be saved.   Almost anywhere else in the world, the same buses would have seat belts for all passengers.  For example, see this ad for a used Van Hool bus in Turkey (through a broker in South Africa) equipped with seat belts for each passenger.  Bus manufacturers’ only excuse for failure to provide such safety equipment for protection of passengers is to argue that omission of a mandatory requirement from federal regulations implies preemption of any obligation to do so.  Their excuse is essentially, "mama didn’t make me do it."  If courts ultimately reject the preemption defense, they have no other excuse.

I hope that the rash of tour bus crashes around the country within the past year will lead to passage of legislation to improve bus safety standards.

 

The Shigley Law Firm  represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases statewide in Georgia, and in other states subject to the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules in each state. Ken Shigley was designated as a "SuperLawyer" in Atlanta Magazine and one of the "Legal Elite" in Georgia Trend Magazine. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, Chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute and former chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute. He particularly focuses on cases arising from truck and bus accidents.

 

 

  • David Warren

    I work at one of the hospitals where some of the accident victims were taken & it was a tragic incident, indeed.
    We have a similar problem with school buses. After all these years, all the accidents, and all the safety tests & reports that confirm the life-saving necessity of seat belts, school buses don’t have them. Why? Partly because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has stood in the way & said it would cost too much for school districts to install seat belts and redesign school bus seating & capacity (see here: http://www.ncsbs.org/testimonies/seat_belt_background.htm).
    This is the same type of obstructionist federal agency behavior that contributed to the ValuJet crash in the Everglades a decade ago (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ValuJet_Flight_592). The FAA has contradictory roles as regulators of airline safety and promoters of the airline industry.
    Like the issue of passenger seatbelts on buses, it’s yet another example of corporate deviance tolerated by weak government oversight.
    Allow me to elaborate by comparing the situations.
    After deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, the FAA attempted to promote the growth of start-ups like ValuJet while also overseeing their compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations. While the success rates for most start-ups were low, ValuJet seemed to be the exception to the rule. In many ways, ValuJet justified the laissez-faire philosophy of the ADA of 1978, and was touted as a model startup company in the age of deregulation. In short, the success of ValuJet was important to the FAA and to the several political administrations that supported it. In terms of safety, the FAA tried to coax ValuJet into federal compliance rather than imposing stiff penalties.
    It has become clear that since the FAA had a vested interest in the economic success of the airline industry as a whole, and ValuJet in particular in the wake of deregulation, they did not adequately pursue ValuJet’s repeated safety violations leading up to the 1996 crash in the Everglades. Part of ValuJet’s rapid growth came at the cost of safety, particularly in the area of maintenance. ValuJet outsourced its maintenance to the lowest possible bidder without ensuring the work was being done properly (SabreTech was one of the maintenance facilities ValuJet contracted with for this purpose & it serviced the plane that crashed). While ValuJet had a responsibility to oversee and regulate SabreTech’s maintenance of its aircraft, the FAA had the ultimate responsibility of overseeing both ValuJet and SabreTech. The FAA didn’t ensure that both ValuJet and SabreTech were following Federal Aviation Requirements. The airline’s safety record had deteriorated almost in direct proportion to its growth. At the time of the crash there were nearly 100 safety-related problems, its accident rate was 14 times higher than major air carriers, and its serious accidents were 32 times higher.
    The NTSB had made safety recommendations to the FAA long before the crash of flight 592 that could have prevented the accident (including the reclassification of class D cargo holds to require extinguishing equipment or changing the liner material to ensure fire containment; reevaluation of all class D cargo holds over 500 cubic feet to ensure that any fires would die from oxygen starvation & that the rest of the plane was properly protected). The NTSB urged the FAA to evaluate the possibility of prohibiting the transportation of oxidizers in cargo compartments (which is what led to the crash of flight 592) without smoke detectors or extinguishing systems.
    See this NTSB press release: http://www.ntsb.gov/pressrel/1997/970819B.htm
    But the FAA resisted these safety recommendations.
    The FAA informed the NTSB that its cost/benefit analysis put a $350 million price tag on the recommendations, and shot them down. It was not going to force the airline industry to make these improvements because it felt they were not cost effective in terms of the amount of money required to possibly prevent a small number of accidents.
    The ValuJet crash represents an example in which the pursuit of profit by corporations along with the failure of a state agency to effectively monitor them resulted in the violent deaths of 110 people. Just like the issue of requiring passenger seatbelts on all buses, regulations take a backseat to promoting business interests when government regulatory agencies are charged with overseeing industries they have a vested interest in promoting.
    Have we learned anything over time? No.
    As the bus accident stories illustrate, along with the countless others that occur each year, these companies are endangering the lives of millions of people with their “do as little as necessary” mentality. The only thing that holds them accountable in a meaningful way are sizeable jury awards when the victims sue & win. But tort reform is taking away even that recourse.
    The laws in this area are fatally inadequate or nonexistent, yet we’re falling all over ourselves to pass laws prohibiting baggy clothes (see here: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-10-14-Baggy_N.htm).

  • Cricket

    The irony you mention regarding school buses is heavy indeed. I refuse to sign any waivers for field trips precisely for that reason; I either take the child
    or he doesn’t go.
    It is ironic that passenger vehicles are cited and drivers fined for either themselves or their passengers not wearing a safety/seat belt, but the buses
    carrying that same cargo are pelting
    down the interstates at 70 MPH and no seat belts at all.
    I agree with all that you have said.

  • Cricket

    One more thing: The buses will not be allowed to pick up the children until all the equipment regarding their safety in getting ON and OFF the bus is in working order: Flashing lights, the gaurd that flips out, the stop sign, etc.
    But don’t worry about the seat belts.

  • Kirsten Harrison

    I, MY FIVE Y.O. DAUGHTER AND MY PARENTS WERE ON THIS BUS AND WERE INJURED: MY DAUGHTER BROKE A CLAVICLE, I WRENCHED MY BACK, MY MOM BROKE HER RIB AND BADLY INJURED HER HIP AND MY DAD DISLOCATED HIS SHOULDER AMONG OTHER THINGS. IT WAS TERRIFYING AND AN EXPERIENCE I WOULD WISH UPON NO ONE. MY DAUGHTER STILL HAS NIGHTMARES ABOUT BUMPS AND CRASHES. THE EVENT SEEMINGLY WENT ON FOR AN ETERNITY AND WE BOUNCED ALL OVER THE BUS LIKE PING PONG BALLS. AT ONE POINT MY DAUGHTER FLEW INTO MY ARMS AND WE BOUNCED ALL OVER THE FLOOR. AT FIRST, I HAD THE SAME REACTION, THAT SEAT BELTS WOULDVE SAVED OUR INJURIES. UPON REFLECTION, HOWEVER, I THINK THAT HAD MY DAUGHTER, ESPECIALLY BEEN STRAPPED TO HER SEAT, THE MOST REAER OF THE BUS NEXT TO THE WINDOW, THAT WHEN WE EVENTUALLY SLAMMED INTO THE WALL, SHE MAY HAVE BEEN STRUCK HEAD FIRST. AS IT WAS, WE WERE ON THE FLOOR, ALSO PARTIALLY SHIELDED FROM THE FLYING GLASS. THOSE TRAPPED IN THEIR SEATS NEAR WINDOWS WERE BADLY INJURED. I DONT KNOW HOW TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION. FOR THOSE IN FRONT, I THINK SEAT BELTS WOULD HAVE DONE WONDERS BUT FOR THE REST, THEY MAY HAVE HARMED US MORE THAN NOT. I APPRECIATE THE DEBATE ON THE SUBJECT. HOPEFULLY MANY MORE STUDIES CAN BE DONE. I REALLY WISH THERE WOULD BE SIDE AIRBAGS AND MORE CUSHION FROM THE SIDE OF THE BUS TO WHERE THE SEATS BEGIN AS THAT IS OFTEN THE POINT OF IMPACT. THANKS