On March 2, 2007, a tour bus carrying the baseball team from Bluffton University in Ohio crashed on an Atlanta freeway. I’m on the team of lawyers in Ohio and Georgia involved in representating members of the Bluffton baseball team and their families
An issues in the case is the lack of seat belts. Some of the young men on the bus were killed or seriously injured when ejected from the bus. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that contributing to the severity of the accident was "the motorcoach’s lack of an adequate occupant protection system." If there had been seat belts or safety glass on the side windows, they would not have been ejected and presumably would not have died. Similar tragedies have occurred elsewhere around the country in recent years.
The same bus purchased almost anywhere else in the world would have belts in all passenger seats. I found an identical bus listed for sale in Turkey — with passenger seat belts. However, neither belts nor laminated safety glass on side windows are typically found on buses in the U.S. because our federal regulations do not require them.
In 1968 when the National Transportation Safety Board first recommended that seat belts be required on all buses. Forty years later, there has been a lot of study and discussion, but not action and no law.
In the wake of this tragedy in Georgia, as well as similar incidents in Texas, legislation was introduced in Congress to require passenger seat belts in tour buses in the United States. Last winter, U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced a bill to give safety proponents just what they wanted – a congressional end-run around the long-stalled seat-belt debate. They co-authored a bill calling for seat belts for passengers on new and old charter buses, and safety glass and stronger roofs on new buses. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia introduced similar legislation in the House that would require seat belts, not just more studies.
However, as reported in an excellent article by Michael Lindenberger in the The Dallas Morning News, the chances of passage this year are fading due to strong opposition from the powerful lobby for bus operators. Lindenberger’s article reports:
Ms. Hutchison and Mr. Brown submitted their bill Nov. 8. On Nov. 20, a political action committee for the American Bus Association sent a check for $1,000 to U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa. By early December, Mr. Shuster had his rival Bluffton University Motorcoach Safety Act before a House committee. He received another $1,000 early this year from the same PAC, and $1,000 more in June from the United Motorcoach Association.
"We welcome the Shuster bill because it calls for the most sweeping research and data collection in motor coach industry history," American Bus Association president and CEO Peter J. Pantuso said in a statement issued shortly after it was introduced.
The article goes on to explain at length the backroom machinations by which the bus industry lobbyists have continued to manipulate the process forty years after the NTSB first recommended requiring passenger seat belts on buses.
As I deal with evidence of the carnage in the Bluffton bus crash case, where bright young college athletes died horrific deaths that would have been prevented by something as simple as a seat belt and safety glass on the side windows to prevent them from being ejected from the bus, I marvel at the determination of the industry to block even the simplest safety measures for four decades.
Ken Shigley has served as chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Litigation Institute, co-sponsored by the Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina Trial Lawyers Associations. He is on the National Advisory Board for the Association of Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America, and is actively involved in the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice. A member of the Million Dollar Advocates, he has successfully tried truck, bus and passenger van accident cases with multimillion dollar verdicts and settlements. He has lectured on truck and bus litigation topics at continuing legal education programs both at home in Georgia and in Nashville, New Orleans and St. Louis, and is scheduled to do so in Chicago this fall. A Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, he is also a Master of the Lamar Inn of Court at Emory Law School, a faculty member for ten years at the Emory University Law School Trial Techniques Program, and was recently elected Secretary of the 39,000 member State Bar of Georgia.