Cause undetermined in Pennsylvania bus crash that killed Dayton girl

A cause of the pile-up crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that killed a Dayton girl has not been determined and the accident remains under investigation, according to a preliminary report issued Thursday.

The National Transportation Safety Board report says the 57-passenger motorcoach bus that crashed on Jan. 5 was carrying 61 passengers.

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The report does not indicate whether some passengers were standing or if children were sitting on the laps of adults. An NTSB spokesman declined to comment about the report.

Federal rules governing buses cover standing passengers but not overall capacity.

“The federal motor carrier safety regulations enforced by the PUCO do not address a maximum number of passengers,” said Matt Schilling, spokesman for the Ohio Public Utilities Commission.

Ruskin Elementary student Jaremy Vazquez, 9, and another passenger were thrown from the motorcoach bus and killed when it crashed near New Stanton, Pennsylvania. The bus landed on its side, lying diagonally across the lanes of the highway, and setting off a chain reaction involving three tractor-trailer trucks and a car on the salted roadway during light snow, according to the NTSB report.

The bus driver and two people in a UPS tractor-trailer truck also died, and about 59 passengers in the bus were injured, the report says.

The 2005 Van Hool motorcoach operated by Z & D Tour of Rockaway, New Jersey, had no passenger seat belts. The owner of the company could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

A Dayton Daily News investigation in January found that bus safety reforms approved by Congress in 2012 or recommended by safety advocates have not been put in place even as dozens of bus occupants — and hundreds of pedestrians and people in other vehicles — are killed annually in crashes involving buses.

Congress mandated that all motorcoach buses manufactured after November 2016 be equipped with lap/shoulder belts. But after a cost-benefit analysis the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates buses, decided against requiring retrofits of older buses like the one Vazquez was riding in. A rule requiring Electronic Stability Control, which is a rollover crash avoidance system, must be installed on new buses manufactured as of August 2018.

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But NHTSA has not written rules implementing other portions of the 2012 law, including roof strength and anti-ejection window improvements and variety of other reforms.

Between 1975 and 2017, bus crashes killed more than 14,300 people, including about 1,800 bus occupants, according to an analysis of federal data.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, last month called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to write rules necessary to put the bus safety law fully into effect and to revisit the issue of retrofitting.

RELATED: U.S. has waited too long to enact bus safety rules, Sen. Brown says

“Today’s report begins to shed light on what occurred in the terrible January bus crash. The accident only underscores the importance of improving motorcoach safety and implementing critical measures included in the bipartisan Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act,” Brown said on Thursday.

He and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, on Jan. 22 sent their third letter since 2016 to the U.S. Department of Transportation asking that the law be fully implemented. The letter also asked the department to revisit its decision to not require retrofitting older buses.

“I’ll continue pushing DOT to stop dragging its feet and use the tools at its disposal to improve the safety of motorcoaches,” Brown said.

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Brown, Lewis and John Betts of Bryan, Ohio, had pushed for the 2012 law after Betts’ son, David, was among seven people killed in 2007 when a motorcoach carrying the Bluffton University baseball team from Ohio crashed in Georgia.

Credit: Kyle Robertson

Credit: Kyle Robertson

A spokesman for NHTSA said last month that a final rule for bus rollover structural integrity is planned for this year, and that studies and rules implementing other parts of the 2012 law are in various stages.

The NTSB is working with the Pennsylvania State Police, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and others on the investigation to determine the probable cause and “with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar events,” according to the report.

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