To John Betts, the federal transportation bill that President Obama is expected to sign today is a "promise fulfilled."
Incorporated within it is the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act, legislation that will require charter and tour buses to have seat belts for every passenger, crush-resistant roofs, and anti-ejection glazing on their windows. The legislation further requires such vehicles be driven by better trained and medically certified drivers, carry tamper-proof event recorders, and be subjected to more strenuous inspections and reporting requirements.
"This is not really high-tech stuff," said Mr. Betts, a Bryan resident whose son David was one of five Bluffton University baseball players killed on March 2, 2007, when a charter bus taking the team to a Florida tournament crashed in Atlanta.
"It's extremely simple and straightforward. We are extremely happy that we can fulfill our promise to David and the Bluffton boys" and all who have been killed or severely hurt in bus crashes, he said during a news teleconference organized by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), the bill's lead co-sponsor along with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas).
"Stronger bus safety standards are long overdue," Mr. Brown said. "I hope that knowing future passengers in tour buses will be better protected on the road will help bring some measure of closure and comfort to the friends, families, and loved ones [of those] who lost their lives in the Bluffton crash. By equipping buses with common-sense safety measures — seat belts, stronger roofs, and safer windows — we can help prevent deaths and minimize injuries."
Seven people died when the team's charter bus was inadvertently driven up a left-side exit ramp on I-75 and flipped over a barrier wall beyond the intersection at the ramp's top, after which it plunged back onto the freeway.
Along with David Betts, the crash killed ballplayers Tyler Williams, Scott Harmon, Cody Holp, and Zach Arend, plus bus driver Jerome Niemeyer and his wife, Jean. All except Mr. Arend were killed instantly. The crash resulted in injuries to 28 other players and coaches on board, with some suffering permanent injuries.
Twelve of the passengers were ejected from the bus during the crash. They included two who were pinned under wreckage, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.
The highway bill:
Reauthorizes transportation programs through September, 2014, at a cost of more than $100 billion. About 80 percent of that goes to federal highway programs, 20 percent to mass transit.
Retains the federal taxes — 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel — that have been unchanged since 1993.
Ensures that 80 percent of Clean Water Act Violation fines paid by BP and others held responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill goes to Gulf Coast states.
Student loan bill:
Keeps interest rates for new subsidized Stafford loans for college students at 3.4 percent for another year.
About $1 billion of the $6 billion cost of the low-interest rate extension comes from a GOP plan to limit federal subsidies for Stafford loans for undergraduates to six years. Currently, the government charges no interest while students are still in school, even if it takes them longer than six years to graduate.
The safety board blamed the crash on driver error and confusing signs on I-75 approaching the ramp, which diverged from a high-occupancy vehicle lane.
But the safety board also urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to follow through on bus-safety measures it had first proposed in 1999, including four of the requirements covered by the pending bill, the final version of which was approved Friday by both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.
Senator Brown predicted a presidential signature today.
Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety, said the bill's passage occurred despite vigorous opposition from the motor coach industry, which objected on the grounds of cost.
"Motor-coach safety has really been the stepchild of transportation, and it's one of the fastest-growing transportation sectors," Ms. Gillan said. "This is really a huge step forward."
In recommending the bill's passage, the American Bus Association noted that it will introduce rules concerning carrier certification and safety reviews, and raise penalties for unsafe operation and evasion of regulations.
"ABA is very pleased with the motor coach safety legislation that has come out of the conference committee," Peter J. Pantuso, the trade organization's president and chief executive officer, said in a statement issued Thursday. "These changes, in the long run, will make our industry safer. Members of Congress have listened to what … ABA members have been saying for the past several years regarding common sense, science-based safety improvements."
The legislation does not set specific deadlines for the introduction of seat belts or other features aboard buses. Instead, it establishes deadlines ranging from two years to five for the safety administration to codify relevant regulations.
Mr. Betts said that although the bill is not ideal, he expects "the things not done are going to be addressed well" — most notably, safety advocates' desire that older buses be retrofitted to improve their safety.
Ms. Gillan noted that the bill directs federal regulators to study the cost-effectiveness and practicality of upgrading existing buses and prepare a report within two years. But Mr. Betts said he expects liability concerns to force bus operators toward either retrofitting or replacing their vehicles.
"How many universities, high schools, or senior centers are going to want to charter motor coaches without seat belts?" he said. "It's going to be a major liability issue. I do believe a market-driven process will take effect. … Companies are going to understand that the public demands buses with all these safety features."
And Ms. Gillan remarked that bus manufacturers already offer the mandated bus-safety features as optional equipment.
"This makes them standard equipment," she said. "These are things that ought to be available to every passenger on every bus."
Contact David Patch at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6094.