Resources Safety Related Articles Federal Motorcoach Safety Bill Full of Surprises
Federal Motorcoach Safety Bill Full of Surprises PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephane Babcock   
Tuesday, 01 January 2008 00:00

Bill calls for seat belts, new standards for window glazing and roof strength

Following in an oddly parallel step with school buses, the motorcoach industry is currently debating the strengths and weaknesses of a recently introduced piece of legislation that calls for seat belts, rollover and interior fire protection, and updating policies concerning window glazing.

The Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2007 (S.2326), which was introduced by Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), came unexpectedly to not only some industry representatives, but also to a source close to the late Congressman Paul Gilmore, who had been working on his own motorcoach safety bill before passing away in September.

“I was surprised,” said the source, who wished to remain anonymous. “Sen. Brown’s office contacted us by phone last spring, but that was just a cursory phone call to say they had an interest in being involved in legislation.”

A month after the Bluffton University motorcoach crash in Atlanta last March, Rep. Gilmore met with John and Joy Betts, who’s son David died when his baseball team’s bus skidded off an overpass and onto its side on Interstate 75.

“We told (Sen. Brown’s office) that we were having meetings with the Betts family and that we were going to be drafting legislation. From that point, the congressman continued to draft the legislation with the Betts family and the industry but had no more dealings or contact with the senator’s office from that point forward,” the anonymous source added.

Sen. Brown’s office contests that retelling, stating they had been collaborating on the legislation with Rep. Gilmore, which he and his staff had personally worked over 100 hours on.

“We were working with him until he died,” said Bethany Lesser, a spokesperson for Sen. Brown’s office. “What we produced is what we were working with him on.”

Varied Opinions
After meeting with the Betts, Rep. Gilmore reached out to the motorcoach industry for help in drafting comprehensive legislation. Vic Parra, president and chief executive officer of the United Motorcoach Association (UMA), began working with the congressman a month after the Bluffton crash and has voiced his apprehension over the introduction of Sen. Brown’s and Sen. Hutchison’s bill.

“My concern is that it says all these things are solutions without testing,” said Parra. “We’re in favor of anything that will protect people more effectively than the current system. That’s why we supported the Gilmore bill, because it approaches it in a rational way.”

Unlike S.2326, Gilmore’s legislation called for NHTSA to perform crash tests on motorcoaches and to set aside funding to cover the costs. It also called for independent testing done by the National Academy of Scientists, which Parra believes would alleviate any concern about the legitimacy of any mandated NHTSA testing.

This lack of research is being contested on both sides of the issue, including the Betts family.

"Planes need seat belts, cars need seat belts. Why wouldn’t a 24-ton bus going 65 mph — a third of which is glass and 11-feet tall with a high center of gravity — need safety regulations?” said John Betts. “The hold up, quite frankly, has to do with ‘Why should we change? No one is making us change. Our safety record is already 630 million passengers a year, averaging 23 deaths a year. How much safer can we be?’ My response: Zero deaths.”

Betts went on to quote a 10-year longitudinal study performed in New Zealand after buses there were fitted with seat belts.

"Not one person in a motorcoach that had their three-way restraint on was killed in 10 years,” said Betts, who after initially working with Rep. Gilmore, began talks with Sen. Brown this past August after speaking with Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Gillan had been working with Sens. Brown and Hutchison on their bill.

“I liked what they were doing,” said Betts. “I reviewed what they had and felt it was a little more comprehensive in one fell swoop. The Gilmore bill was going to be more of a step approach.”

Those steps, which are absent from Sen. Brown’s bill, are the biggest bone of contention voiced by members the motorcoach industry.

“The bill is nothing but a series of mandates,” said Clyde J. Hart, Jr., senior vice president for government affairs at the American Bus Association (ABA). “It assumes the conclusion that seat belts are great all the time in all cases and should be put on buses as quickly as possible, and it does this without any research, no science and no funding for it. You cannot just add a seat belt to a bus. You have to determine how you want to bolt the seat belt to the seat, and then the seat to the floor.”

To come up with an installation standard, the amount of G-forces a seat belt must withstand during a crash needs to be determined. If that number is high enough, manufacturers would possibly have to tear down the bus and build it back up again, according to Hart. His other objections to the new bill include the standards for window glazing and roof strength.

“You’re replacing one kind of window with another kind of window, and that is not an easy or cheap process,” said Hart. “If you talk about increasing the strength of a roof, then you are talking about a completely new bus. You cannot just take off a roof and put a new one on and expect that new one to perform.”

Possible Collaboration
Since the introduction of S.2326 in November, both the UMA and ABA have met with Sens. Brown and Hutchison in an attempt to work on strengthening the bill. While some are optimistic about its future, others are unsure of the senators’ intentions.

“Sen. Hutchison’s people indicated that her bill was a place to begin a conversation about bus safety and what was needed,” said Hart. “They seemed interested in the Gilmore bill and the questions we raised, but I can’t characterize our meeting with Sen. Brown as being quite that positive. They didn’t seem to be very interested in our view that you have to base new safety regulations on sound science testing and a review of that science.”

Ken Presley, vice president of industry relations for the UMA, also attended both meetings and stressed that no one had set a specific time line, but that the dialogue remained opened. The UMA and ABA have also stated they will continue to pursue a sponsor for the legislation that they worked on with the late Rep. Gilmore.

“It does make it difficult to introduce legislation when your launch sequence is behind another bill. I don’t think it waters down our efforts, though. It just makes it difficult for a member of Congress to look at both bills and decide which to support,” added Parra.

Reprinted from the January 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 January 2010 17:31