Dayton girl’s death renews debate over seat belts on buses

Retrofitting older buses costly and complicated, but some advocates say it’s necessary to save lives.

The Pennsylvania bus crash that killed a 9-year-old Dayton girl this month has fueled renewed questions about the federal government’s decision to not require retrofitting older tour buses with seat belts and its slowness in implementing other safety measures.

“If anything positive can come out of a tragedy, it is mechanisms to improve safety,” said Chris Turner, director of crash and data programs for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.

In the wake of fatal bus accidents, including the 2007 wreck near Atlanta that killed seven people on a motorcoach carrying Ohio’s Bluffton University baseball team, Congress in 2012 mandated that all new motorcoaches have lap/shoulder seat belts, beginning in November 2016. Older buses aren’t required to be retrofitted.

Seat belts also aren’t required for large school buses. The National Transportation Safety Board in 2018 recommended lap/shoulder seat belts in new school buses.

States and school boards can require seat belts on school buses, but Ohio is not one of the eight states that does so. Dayton School Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said it’s an issue she is ready to take to her board of education.

“We got seat belts for preschool and special needs buses, so now is it time to consider the safety of all students who ride on buses?” Lolli said.

She plans to talk to the school board about requiring lap/shoulder seat belts on the district’s school buses when the board holds its Jan. 25 retreat.

“It is something we should very seriously consider because when you ride on a bus, and the seats are basically bench seats, you could be thrown anyplace on impact,” Lolli said. “And if there’s a crash and I’m ejected, then I’ll most likely die.”

Ruskin Elementary student Jaremy Vazquez, 9, and another passenger were thrown from a motorcoach bus and killed when it crashed near New Stanton, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 5. The bus driver and two people in other vehicles were also killed and more than 50 were injured when the bus crash set off a chain reaction involving three tractor-trailer trucks and a passenger vehicle. The 2005 model motorcoach had no passenger seat belts.

RELATED: Dayton elementary student among victims killed in weekend Pennsylvania bus crash

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said it illustrated the need for lap/shoulder belts in all motorcoaches and school buses. Speaking at a news conference the day after the accident, Homendy said it is very hard “when you see accident after accident where a death or serious injury could have been prevented by a seat belt, lap/shoulder belt in particular. We keep recommending it. We are not going to stop.”

Reform efforts

Car and truck accidents killed most of the 37,000 people who died on the nation’s highways in 2017, according to federal statistics. That year crashes involving buses killed 274 people, 44 of whom were bus occupants, including nine in school buses and six in motorcoaches, according to an analysis of the most recent data available from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

RELATED: As large truck traffic increases on US roadways, is safety taking a hit?

Between 1975 and 2017, bus crashes killed 14,374 people, including 1,822 bus occupants, according to the data.

“There’s always more that needs to be done,” to reduce injuries and deaths on buses of all types, Turner said, including accidents involving the growing number of party buses and limousines.

While he was a Kansas Highway Patrol captain, Turner investigated the 2013 death of a woman who was run over and killed when she fell from the improperly secured door of an illegally operating party bus during a rolling bachelorette party.

Multiple bus safety reforms approved by Congress in 2012 have languished. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates buses, has not written rules implementing them.

The drive to require those motorcoach safety measures was led by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who worked with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and John Betts of Bryan, Ohio, whose son David was killed in the Bluffton crash.

“Keeping Ohioans safe is always my first priority. By equipping buses — both motorcoaches and school buses — with common-sense safety measures, including seat belts, stronger roofs and safer windows, we can help prevent deaths and minimize injuries,” Brown said. “Simply put, these reforms will save lives.”

NHTSA issued the seat belt rule for new motorcoaches that took effect in 2016, and a rule requiring Electronic Stability Control, which is a rollover crash avoidance system, to be installed on new buses manufactured as of August 2018.

“There hasn’t been rule-making that addresses any other of the crash-worthiness aspects of the motorcoach. So the NTSB continues to push on those aspects,” said Kristin Poland, the board’s deputy director of highway safety. “Motorcoaches don’t have any requirements for the roof strength. We have seen cases where a motorcoach will roll over onto its roof and the roof collapses.”

RELATED: Amid grief, a father keeps promise to get Congress to act

The 2012 law also required NHTSA to consider the feasibility of requiring seat belt retrofits for older buses like the one Vazquez was riding in when she died. But a cost-benefit analysis, which is required in all federal rule-making, determined it would be too costly and impractical. So the agency decided not to require retrofitting, according to NHTSA’s 2016 report to Congress.

“The agency sadly puts a cold harsh number on each life lost,” said Peter Kurdock, general counsel for the lobbying group, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Unfortunately, it’s a pattern with this agency that for some reason they are unable to meet Congressional deadlines on rule-making that can save lives.”

Rules also have not been issued for roof strength and anti-ejection window improvements and variety of other changes included in the 2012 law, so Brown and Lewis are drafting their third letter since 2016 to the U.S. Department of Transportation secretary demanding action and asking NHTSA to reconsider requiring that older motorcoaches be retrofitted with seat belts.

The agency is working on more than 60 tasks related to Congressional transportation spending laws passed in 2012 and 2015, according to a statement from NHTSA. The safety rule process is in various stages for bus rollover structural integrity, sidewall integrity and anti-ejection glazing, the statement says.

“The final rule for bus rollover structural integrity is currently planned for this year,” the statement says.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he is also interested in looking at ways to improve bus safety.

“My heart goes out to the families of those who lost their lives as a result of this accident,” Portman said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to see that the recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board are carefully reviewed and appropriately implemented to ensure the proper safety measures are in place in hopes of preventing a tragedy like this from occurring again.”

Ken Presley, spokesman for the United Motorcoach Association, said tour buses have many safety features and must meet a raft of federal safety standards. They are subject to regular inspection and can be taken off the road for violations, as can their drivers.

A motorcoach, which costs between $500,000 to $600,000 and can last about 20 years, uses a passive system called “compartmentalization,” Prelsey said. That’s similar to what’s in school buses to help protect unbelted people in their seats.

Some motorcoach operators have taken it upon themselves to retrofit with seat belts, Presley said. But that’s complicated by the way some older motorcoaches are designed, he and Poland said. Just adding seat belts to some older buses without additional changes to the floor could cause the seats to come loose in a crash. So retrofitting some buses could be cost-prohibitive, Poland said, or even dangerous.

“If the seat comes completely loose, you have a very large projectile that is strapped on to it,” she said.

‘Seat belts save lives’

Older adults remember the pre-1968 days when seat belts were not required in passenger cars. Even into the 1980s, seat-belt usage hovered around 25 percent, said Deogratias Eustace, associate professor and director of the University of Dayton transportation engineering lab.

Many states now require people to wear seat belts in passenger vehicles and Eustace said seat-belt usage is at about 90 percent nationally. He said nearly half of people killed in motor vehicles in 2017 were not wearing seat belts.

“Seat belts save lives,” Eustace said.

But bus passengers, given the choice, may not always wear one.

“Nobody has ever said, ‘Will this bus have seat belts or not?’ before they get on it,” said Jan Austin, owner of Bee On the Go Travel, a Dayton company that books and hosts motorcoach trips using buses rented from companies, including Buckeye Charters.

Charlotte Tingelstad, operations director of Dayton-based Buckeye, said the company has had seat belts available in some rows in its motorcoaches for years and in all of the ones purchased since the new rules took effect.

“They do not wear them,” Tingelstad said. “I can literally say if you’ve got 56 passengers, 55 of them are not buckled in.”

Both Austin and Tingelstad said they do not provide tours with party buses and one local party bus operator said he decided to get out of the business. Party buses are typically modified vans or buses with seats removed and reconfigured to make room for people to stand or dance, a bar or keg, stereo equipment, lights and even stripper poles.

Turner and Presley said they are becoming increasingly concerned about these because operators sometimes skirt safety regulations and accidents continue to happen, such as the woman in Kansas in 2013 and another in Virginia in 2018.

Steven White, owner of Fat Cat Party Bus of Huber Heights, is a professional truck driver who formerly drove for a party bus company. He bought a party bus, which he said provided a good income, and operated it until December 2018.

White said he never had an injury on his bus, but decided to park it permanently after seeing multiple news reports of tragic accidents involving party buses and limos across the country.

“It kind of scared me about running it,” White said. “Hurting someone would absolutely kill me.”

School buses

Calls for school bus safety reforms, including mandating seat belts, tend to increase after fatal bus accidents, said Doug Shinkle, transportation program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The one thing people won’t abide by is school children dying while being transported by a school district or government. Of course, rightfully so,” Shinkle said.

Between 2008 and 2017 there were 104 occupants of school buses killed in crashes. Motorcoaches had 180 occupant fatalities during that period, federal statistics show.

Every day 500,000 school buses transport more than 25 million students to and from schools and activities, according to NTSB, and experts agree that those buses are already very safe.

They are also the country’s most highly regulated buses, with mandated occupant protection features like “compartmentalization,” which includes high-backed, padded seats to protect riders in crashes, as well as roof and sidewall strength requirements and other safety features. But Poland said compartmentalization doesn’t protect unbelted riders in a side impact crash, especially if the bus is hit by a truck or train.

NTSB began recommending seat belts for large school buses in 2018.

Critics say the belts are not needed because there are plenty of safety features on school buses. Also there are fears that children who are belted in could be trapped or slowed during an evacuation. There also are cost considerations for states or school districts.

Lolli expects there will be robust discussion in the community and with her board members over whether to require seat belts. But she said it’s something she expects all Ohio school superintendents will need to consider “at some point in time, because that is becoming one of the issues that’s out there.”

For many years Poland was one of the NTSB investigators for bus crashes, viewing the carnage or talking to grieving family members. She said the safety board is always looking for ways to improve safety so “another family will not have to experience the same catastrophe.”

The number of deaths in school buses is already low, but Poland said “one is way too much.”

“We can get to zero with this,” she said. “That’s where the NTSB’s perspective is. With lap/shoulder belts we can get to zero.”

Bus crash occupant fatalities - Type of bus     
YearSchool busMotorcoachTransit busVan-based busOther or unknown bus type

Note: A bus is any motor vehicle designed primarily to transport nine or more persons, including the driver. Van-based type was not listed until 2011. 

Source: U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2017

Ohio bus crashes - 2015-2019 - Crash Severity

No bus occupants have died in crashes in Ohio the past five years. But occupants of other vehicles and pedestrians involved in bus crashes have died. 

School buses20152016201720182019TOTAL
Property damage only1,1181,1271,1741,0631,0715,553
Other buses      
Property damage only7227937508001,1834,248
TOTAL 962 1,052 1,020 1,055 1,520 5,609

*Note: Includes serious, minor and possible injuries.

Source: Ohio State Highway Patrol

Other stories by Lynn Hulsey

UDRI researchers discover cause of dangerous jet fuel contamination

Ex-Trotwood mayor pleads not guilty to fraud charges in federal court

Corruption, mass shooter, water safety: Our investigative stories of 2019

Indictment: Businessman used money from insurance at casino for phone bill

Officials push to reverse declines at Dayton International Airport

About the Author