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Published: Sunday, 3/25/2007

Bluffton tragedy reignites seat-belt debate

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
John Betts, at the recent funeral for his son, David, in Bryan, Ohio, has committed himself to bus and highway safety issues. John Betts, at the recent funeral for his son, David, in Bryan, Ohio, has committed himself to bus and highway safety issues.
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David Betts rested his head on a pillow and nestled his knees against the seat in front of him as he slept in the fourth row of the chartered bus that was supposed to safely transport the Bluffton University baseball team to Florida for its spring break slate of games earlier this month.

Mr. Betts, 20, of Bryan, Ohio, along with four of his teammates died after they were ejected from the motor coach when the driver mistook an exit lane for the highway, ultimately driving the bus through a concrete barrier and off an overpass, smashing sideways onto the pavement of I-75 in Atlanta.

John Betts, Mr. Betts father, said last week that investigators told him the lives of the five teammates could have been spared in the March 2 crash had there been seat belts on the bus. Like most U.S. motor coaches, the buses lacked restraints, which are not required under transportation regulations.

If there s a seat belt, it s going to save those five boys lives, John Betts said Thursday, less than three weeks after he promised his son at the morgue that something good would come of his death. The crash also killed his son s teammates, Scott Harmon and Tyler Williams, both of Lima; Cody Holp of Arcanum, Ohio, and Zachary Arend of Oakwood, Ohio, as well as the bus driver and his wife, Jerome and Jean Niemeyer, of Columbus Grove, Ohio.

John Betts, 55, who is living out his promise to his son by devoting his life to bus and highway safety issues, is a new voice in a long-standing debate about whether safety belts should be mandatory on all buses, including motor coaches and school buses.

The students who died in the Atlanta crash had been ejected. The students who died in the Atlanta crash had been ejected.
GENE BLYTHE / AP Enlarge

Motor coaches are one of the safest forms of transportation, with an average of 22.7 fatalities per year over the past 10 years, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

After a series of fatal crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board released a bus crash-worthiness study in 1999, which reported there are ways to make buses even safer. The board s key recommendation which has been largely ignored was that federal regulators devise new standards to cut down on often-deadly motor coach ejections.

There s been a failure of leadership at the federal level to take responsibility, said Jim Hall, the former chairman of the safety board from 1994 to 2001, who says seat belts are one answer for bus safety. We see no action. It s just a tragedy.

At a congressional hearing last week on motor coach safety sparked by the Bluffton bus crash, lawmakers asked why more hasn t been done to require the same standards in buses as other vehicles, where seat-belt installation has been required for decades.

The arguments against mandating seat belts on motor coaches are that proponents aren t necessarily considering the safety records of buses and that the belts can cause injuries. Federal regulators have noted seat belts are more likely to be beneficial in cars where passengers are tightly packed as opposed to buses, where there is open space.

There s also concern that even if seat belts were available, passengers wouldn t wear them.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn t implemented the safety board s bus safety recommendations because the agency is still studying the proposals, a spokesman told the Associated Press earlier this month.

Mr. Hall, the former safety board chairman, said he believes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn t mandated safety restraints because of the financial costs to the industry and because the industry has had a powerful influence on its own regulators.

The industry has done everything it can through its lobbyists to prevent a federal requirement, Mr. Hall said. At the same time, I can t excuse the individuals who are responsible at the federal level for not moving this issue forward.

Since 1999, bus industry political action committees have contributed more than $500,000 to political candidates on the federal level, according to campaign finance records.

Ken Presley, the vice president of industry relations for the United Motorcoach Association, dismissed the notion that the industry has used its political influence to curb regulation.

We want ultimately what is the safest possible bus that we can put out there for our passengers, Mr. Presley said.

He said seat belts are not a financial issue for the motor coach industry, and ultimately, federal regulators need to study the issue and decide if they should be mandated on buses.

Anybody that would characterize it as a cost issue is ignoring the facts, Mr. Presley said. It s a safety issue. Is it more safe to have them or not have them? Is it more safe to change the compartmentalization? NHTSA needs to study it.

The former safety board chairman said federal regulators could look to other countries, which have made seat belts the norm on buses. It s required in Europe, it s required in Australia, and the only place you see a failure to act is here in the United States, Mr. Hall said.

In Australia, mandatory seat-belt installation was triggered by a pair of deadly crashes in 1989. By 1994, all buses were required to have restraints.

A study examining 10 years of mandatory restraints on buses in Australia showed that no seat belt-wearing bus passenger had been killed in a crash. The authors of the study, however, noted that it was impossible to measure the effectiveness of the restraints because of a lack of severe motor coach crashes in the time period.

Seat-belt usage rates were low, likely about 20 percent, according to the study.

Mr. Betts believes his son would have been wearing a seat belt on the morning of March 2.

And at the least, Mr. Betts said, his son should have had been able to decide whether to wear a seat belt which potentially could have saved his life. If there s no seat belts, there s no option.

Contact Steve Eder at: seder@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.



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