John and Joy Butts fought a years-long battle with Congress to improve safety measures on motor coaches after their son and four of his teammates on the Bluffton University baseball team died on March 2, 2007, when the motor coach carrying them to Florida plunged off a bridge in Atlanta. The driver and his wife were also killed.

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

Bluffton University bus crash led Congress to enact safety measures on motor coaches.

This was often the time of year when John Betts would emerge from another blustery northern Ohio winter to watch his boy play baseball.

At Little League fields, then through high school and eventually at Bluffton University, Betts and his wife Joy, of Bryan, would be in the stands watching their son, David, play second base with his usual passion and glee.

Now, March evokes a different memory, one of profound and earth-shattering grief. On March 2, 2007 — 10 years ago today — a motor coach carrying David and the rest of the Bluffton University baseball team plunged over an overpass, crashing 20 feet on the highway below just outside of Atlanta.

RELATED: 10 THINGS TO KNOW 10 YEARS LATER 

Seven people — David, four of his teammates, the bus driver and his wife — died in the crash, while just about everyone on the bus suffered one injury or another. The bus was headed to Florida for the team’s spring games.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, John Betts made a promise. He would do everything he could to get changes enacted that would keep someone else’s kid from suffering a similar fate. It took him five years, but it was a promise he would keep.

The Bluffton bus crash is more than a tragedy. It’s a story of personal will, perseverance and a dedication to derive some good from awful circumstance. But it’s also a story that doesn’t yet have an ending. Some of the provisions included in the overall highway safety bill of 2012 have yet to be enacted, and it’s not clear if they will be. With President Donald Trump putting a moratorium on all new regulations, prospects for those parts of the bill look grim.

That there were any changes at all, however, is largely due to John Betts.

Frequent presence

Betts became a frequent presence in Washington, D.C., and a tireless advocate for safety measures that included three-point harnesses, tougher roofs and anti-shatter glazing for windows.

His grief was always present but coexisted with a gritty determination that accomplished what increasingly seems impossible in the nation’s capital: He made something happen. 

With the passage of the 2012 transportation bill, all new motor coaches beginning last November were required to have three-point seat belts, a major change that might have saved some lives on March 2, 2007. By August 2018, another provision requiring electronic stability control on new buses will be in place.

But other requirements, such as anti-ejection glazing on windows and increased roof strength, remain in flux. 

Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, sees a frightening double-standard in motor coach safety compared to other forms of transportation. While the Federal Aviation Administration can provide information on on-time arrivals for airplanes, she said, “they can’t even give basic safety ratings” to motor coach operators, which was one of the requirements spelled out in the 2012 law.

Motor coach riders – which include student athletes and kids on field trips – are treated “like second class citizens,” Gillan said.

In the years since Bluffton, there have been 170 motor coach crashes and fires that have claimed the lives of nearly 250 and injured more than 2,500, according to Gillan.

Still, she said, there’s been progress — and it was because of the Bluffton families and other survivors.

“We could go to (Capitol) Hill and say, ‘Oh my God, go and look at the NTSB records and why aren’t you doing anything?’” she said. “But when those families showed up and started talking about their son David or their daughter Heather who were in a crash and died, it really forced Congress to address this issue.”

Saving lives

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, met the Betts family after reaching out to them after the crash. At one point, he went to a batting cage that they set up in David’s honor, and took a few swings.

“After a tragedy, some families just sort of isolate themselves, and that’s understandable,” Brown said. “And other families like Joy and John decide to do this in memory of their son. But it’s even bigger than that. They do it because they don’t want other parents to go through what they did. What they’ve done has saved lives, there’s no question.”

He said despite the moratorium, he plans to keep the pressure on the Trump administration to enact the bill. “I’m an equal opportunity agitator,” he said.

Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, said for years the industry sought guidance on how to make buses safer. “We repeatedly got put off by the agencies saying, ‘you guys are safe, you’re a very safe industry.” Bluffton, he said, caused Congress to move.

“The vehicles being manufactured now are much safer,” he said, “and they will continue to get safer.”

Betts said it gives him a measure of relief to know that maybe he sought measures that will save lives.

But he grieves still and can’t imagine a day when he won’t.

‘How do you get through this?’

Everyone handles it differently. Betts said one of the mothers of the other players screamed in agony when she lost her son, couldn’t talk about him, couldn’t look at pictures of him for years after his death. It wasn’t the wrong reaction, he said. It was just how she coped.

“I couldn’t stand not to look at David’s picture,” he said. “I couldn’t get enough knowledge.”

In the years since David’s death, Betts would occasionally get a call from a parent who’d lost a child. How do you get through this? They’d ask.

Betts would tell them he didn’t know.

“You just do it by honoring them,” he said. “And how you honor them is you get better, you don’t get bitter.”

Over the years, he’s asked himself a question repeatedly: Is what he’s doing making things better or worse? Is he reacting out of bitterness or a desire to make things better?

He knows nothing he does will remove the ache in his heart, but within that space is also a feeling of satisfaction that he kept his promise.

“I’ve missed my son for the last 10 years,” he said. “And I’m going to miss him for the next 30. That’s not going to change.”

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