“The worst thing for the NTSB is to show up, know that we’ve issued recommendations from a previous accident where lives have been lost and find out (that) if those recommendations had been closed and enacted, lives could have been saved. — NTSB member Mark Rosekind”
“It was a double-bedded FedEx ground truck. Both of the beds were askewed at some weird sort of angle. And it just hit us,” said Miles Hill, an 18-year-old high school student who was sitting right behind the driver of a tour bus a that was struck by a FedEx truck on April 10, 2014. “It swerved into our lane and hit us head on. That’s when I prepared to give up and thought, ‘This is it. It’s over’.”
Hill’s story of survival is all the more harrowing in the moments after the two vehicles collided. The impact caused both vehicles to erupt in flames, with students in the bus trying to find any way they could to get out of the burning wreckage. “I kicked out a window and booked it,” Hill said. “Some other people came out of that window after. I’m grateful they did. There was another window that got kicked out in the back. So 36 people made it out in total.”
Unfortunately, not everyone made it out of the bus. Survivors lauded the heroism of 18-year-old Ismael Jimenez, who spent his last moments helping other kids escape the burning bus. Jimenez was one of five students that lost their lives in the crash. Three adult chaperones, the bus driver and the FedEx truck driver were also killed.
Tragedies like the Orland FedEx crash often create a stir in all of us to do something to prevent these types of accidents and mitigate the harm that they can cause. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is still in the beginning stages of their investigation into the Orland tragedy, has been making bus safety recommendations to lawmakers for the last 15 years. Many of these recommendations still haven’t been adequately addressed.
Bus Fire Safety
Fire safety in transportation has been on the NTSB’s radar for some time. In 2005, 23 passengers were killed in a bus fire near Wilmer, Texas. The fire started due to a lack of lubrication in the right side tag axle, which led to the front right tire of the bus catching fire. Due to a lack of fire retardant materials along the wheel well, the fire spread.
“Once a fire starts, materials and design can slow fire propagation, allowing the operator more time to respond,” noted the NTSB. “For example, in motorcoaches, the use of fire-resistant materials for sidewalls in fire-prone areas could prevent fires from entering passenger compartments.”
In the wake of the Wilmer bus fire, the NTSB made several recommendations to government agencies in order to address fire safety on tour buses, also referred to as motorcoaches. Fire suppression, according to the NTSB, “holds the greatest potential for saving lives.”
The NTSB recommended that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) “establish a process to continuously gather and evaluate information on the causes, frequency, and severity of bus and motorcoach fires and conduct ongoing analysis of fire data to measure the effectiveness of the fire prevention and mitigation techniques.”
The NTSB also recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “develop a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard to provide enhanced fire protection of the fuel system in areas of motorcoaches and buses where the system may be exposed to the effects of a fire.” The agency also asked the NHTSA to “develop a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard to provide fire-hardening of exterior fire-prone materials, such as those in areas around wheel wells, to limit the potential for flame spread into a motorcoach or bus passenger compartment.”
Fire safety is currently on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List for 2014.
Bus Emergency Exits and Escape Routes
Though the investigation into the Orland crash is still in its early stages, what is clear is that students on the bus had to struggle to find a way to escape from the burning wreckage. They were forced to kick out windows, as the only known exit door was at the front of the bus, which was completely engulfed in flames, and a door for those with disabilities was locked and could only be opened by the bus driver.
The NTSB made recommendations for easy-to-open windows in tour buses following a 1997 crash that saw a bus leave the roadway and overturn in a river near Petersburg, Virginia. Passengers trying to escape the partially submerged bus had to exert a tremendous amount of force to open the emergency exit window and free themselves. It is not yet known what type of windows were installed on the tour bus in the FedEx truck crash.
According to CBS Sacramento, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been working on bus evacuation regulation since 2007, but has yet to offer a proposal. The thrust behind the agency’s regulation is to “ensure evacuation in adequate time under different emergency situations for various occupant groups, including children and the elderly,” according to NHTSA.
The NHTSA has been historically slow to enact bus safety recommendations. Safety advocates and accident investigators first recommended seat belts on large buses 45 years ago after a fatal crash in the Mojave Desert that left 19 passengers dead. Last November, the NHTSA finally issued a rule stating that all new buses or motorcoaches be equipped with seat belts.
“Unfortunately, motorcoach safety has historically been an orphan at NHTSA,” said Jim Hall, who at one time served as the chairman of the NHTSA. “This is the transportation that carries primarily older people, students and low-income people. It hasn’t been a priority (for regulators).”
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, said the bus industry fought “like cats and dogs” with safety advocates to prevent any “hard deadlines” in a 2012 law to regulate safety issues like easy-to-open bus windows and exits. Claybrook added that in the NHTSA’s defense, the agency is severely underfunded to research, test and draft legislation for all vehicles, not just buses.
Bus Design Integrity
The bus industry has long fought the efforts of safety advocates and law makers to bolster requirements for fire-retardant materials, better firefighting systems and better design standards for withstanding crash forces. “These things are essentially like sardine cans,” Henry Jasny told the Los Angeles Times in the wake of the Orland crash. Jasny is the chief council and vice president for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group that strives to make America’s roads safer.
Protective structures and energy absorption are commonplace in passenger vehicles, but the design of large buses doesn’t do enough to adequately address occupant protection in a crash. This danger is compounded by the potential for bus fuel systems to be compromised in high-impact collisions like the Orland crash. High-impact crashes can cause fuel systems to rupture, leading to fuel-fed fires or even explosions. As we’ve already seen, fire abatement in buses is also lacking.
The bus industry should take a hard look at what NASCAR has done to combat fuel-fed fires and fuel tank explosions. Starting in the 1960’s, NASCAR race cars began utilizing rubberized fuel cells to replace rigid fuel tanks. The rubberized fuel cells are significantly more crash resistant and less prone to rupturing and leaking. This move has likely prevented countless car fires resulting from high-impact crashes and saved lives.
Tragic fires could be avoided if lawmakers required buses to apply the same design mechanisms for occupant protection already found in passenger vehicles and utilize flexible, crash resistant fuel tanks.