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Austin crash raises new questions about bus safety

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Crashed bus
Rescuers work the scene of a tour bus that rolled over in a ditch on Wednesday Nov. 18, 2009 in Freeborn County on Interstate 90 west of Austin, Minn. A tour bus, operated by Strain Bus Line Motorcoach Tours in Rochester, ran off a southern Minnesota interstate and rolled over in a ditch Wednesday.
AP Photo/Austin Daily Herald, Eric Johnson

The fatal crash of a bus in southern Minnesota this week has put a spotlight on the safety of the tour bus industry.  

In general, buses are among the safest forms of transportation.  But there is concern that lax enforcement of charter and tour bus operators contributes to fatal crashes.   Critics say bus driver licensing requirements should be tougher, and that buses themselves need more safety features.  

Even before two people died this week in the tour bus rollover near Austin, a series of fatal accidents across the U.S. had attracted wide-spread concern.  

In October, a high school band teacher died when a charter bus veered off the road in Idaho.  Last April, five people died in a tour bus rollover in California.   In January, seven died when a charter bus overturned in Arizona.   In August of last year, one of the worst bus accidents in recent history happened in Texas.

"My mother was sitting on the aisle seat of the bus in the front row,"  said Yen-Chi Le, whose mother was on a tour bus that struck a curb along a highway north of Dallas causing a tire to blow out.  "And the bus veered to the right and went off a small bridge and landed on the embankment eight feet below."

In that crash 17 people died, including Le's mother.  Investigators said a puncture caused the tire failure, but they also turned up plenty of other troubling issues.  The failed tire was an illegal retread, the driver had alcohol and cocaine in his system, and the bus company which owned the coach was operating illegally, without a license.  

Le said the accident touched off calls for regulatory reform of the bus industry, but so far neither Congress nor the bus industry has acted.  

"It just seems that they're stalling," Le said.

One of the areas under scrutiny are bus drivers.  In the crash in southern Minnesota this week, the bus company said the driver blacked out from a medical problem, but authorities have not confirmed that. Investigators say they have not yet determined the cause of the accident.   

Daniel Blower, a research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, and his team studied 7 years of U.S. bus crash information, from 1999 to 2005.   He said their findings show that compared with school or city buses there may be a problem with the drivers tour bus companies hire.

"They have a more spotty driving history than other bus carrier types," Blower said.  "Higher rates of prior crashes and higher rates of prior traffic violations."

Blower found one other thing.  When a tour bus accident happens, driver error is more often a factor than with school or other types of buses.  Driver problems are a substantial part of a safety report on buses issued this week by the U.S. Transportation Department.   

The report said driver fatigue, medical conditions and inattention are significant problems, and that those issues caused nearly 60 percent of the accidents studied.  The head of the American Bus Association, Peter Pantuso, said his organization supports tougher driver licensing regulations.  

"We have for a long time believed that there should be a national database to track bus drivers," Pantuso said.  "Track their health, their safety record, [and] track their driving record."

Pantuso said the federal government has failed to institute this and other needed reforms, but many say it was the industry, not the government that stymied needed changes.  

In its report this week, the transportation department proposed seatbelts, as well as stronger roofs and windows for buses.  Jim Hall, who chaired the National Transportation Safety Board under the Clinton administration, said those are steps he called for ten years ago, but nothing happened in the face of opposition from the bus industry.    

"It just quite frankly breaks my heart every time I read of another death in a motor coach accident that could've been prevented by a seatbelt and proper occupant protection in a motor coach," Hall said.

Bus industry officials deny they tried to block reforms.  The most recent transportation department proposals will go through a lengthy hearing process before they take effect.   If there's significant opposition, the process could last years and possibly end again in no action.