WASHINGTON — New tour buses and buses that provide service between cities must be equipped with seat belts starting in late 2016 under a federal rule issued Wednesday, a safety measure sought by accident investigators for nearly a half-century.
Beginning in November, 2016, all new motorcoaches and some other large buses must be equipped by manufacturers with three-point lap-shoulder belts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. The rule doesn’t apply to school buses or city transit buses.
An average of 21 people in large buses are killed each year in crashes, and nearly 8,000 others are injured annually, the safety administration said. Seat belts could reduce fatalities and moderate-to-severe injuries by nearly half. About half of all motorcoach fatalities are the result of rollovers, and about 70 percent of those killed in rollover accidents were ejected from the bus. “Adding seat belts to motorcoaches increases safety for all passengers and drivers, especially in the event of a rollover crash,” said David Strickland, head of the safety administration.
The nation’s fleet of 29,000 motorcoaches transports about 700 million passengers a year in the United States, akin to the domestic airline industry, the United Motorcoach Association says. Because buses are typically on the road 20 to 25 years, it likely will be many years before most have seat belts.
Commercial bus operators fought seat belts for decades, but opposition weakened after a high-profile accident in 2007 in which a bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team plummeted off a highway overpass near Atlanta. Five players, the bus driver, and his wife were killed. Twenty-eight others were injured, some permanently.
John Betts, whose son, David, was among the players killed, said it was “a very good day that we’re moving forward” with a vital safety requirement, but the seat-belt rule was “long overdue” and more remains to be done.
“It’s a good thing, no question about it … but I mean, come on. 2016? Really?” he said, also lamenting that older buses won’t need to be retrofitted.
Still to be codified into rules, Mr. Betts said, are the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act’s requirements for crush-resistant roofs, anti-ejection window glazing, tamper-proof event recorders, stricter driver certification, and tougher inspection and reporting requirements.
“There are a number of things that need to be continued,” he said. “But this is one of the pieces — one of the bigger pieces, I think — that is definitely moving forward.
The charter bus crashed in Atlanta while taking the Bluffton team to a Florida tournament. The bus was inadvertently driven up a left-side exit ramp along I-75 and flipped over a barrier wall beyond the intersection at the ramp’s top. It then plunged back onto the freeway.
The new rule is “an important step,” the American Bus Association said in a statement, adding that industry officials worked with government regulators “to ensure that sufficient research and testing went into crafting the new seat belt standard released today.” Many new buses are equipped with seat belts, the association said.
The National Transportation Safety Board first recommended motorcoaches be equipped with seat belts in 1968 after investigating a highway crash that killed 19 passengers near the Mojave Desert town of Baker, Calif.
Investigators said the passengers had survived the crash, but were unable to escape a fire that consumed the wreckage, probably because they were too badly injured and confused.
The passengers would have had a better chance of survival if they had been held in their seats by safety belts or some other restraint, the board said.
Hundreds of motorcoach passengers have died and even more have been injured, many severely, since the board made its initial recommendations. In addition to the Bluffton players, victims have included Vietnamese church-goers in Texas, gamblers returning to New York’s Chinatown, and members of a high school girls’ soccer team en route to a playoff match.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), who sponsored a bill requiring seat belts on the buses, said seat belts are “a common-sense safety measure that is long overdue.”
Motorcoaches typically cost $350,000 to $500,000, the bus association said. Seat belts would add about $3,000 to the price of a new, 54-passenger bus, according to the safety administration.
Requiring seat belts on existing buses was rejected because it would have been far more costly: $40,000 per bus, the agency said.