July 30, 2014 at 3:29 pm

U.S. proposes new rules to protect bus passengers in rollover crashes

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed new rules to protect passengers in large bus crashes by requiring structural safeguards but won’t require school buses or urban transit buses to get the upgrades or seek significant retrofitting of existing buses.

The proposed standard — modeled on European Union regulations and required by Congress under a 2012 law — would establish performance requirements for motor coaches and large buses in dynamic tests in which buses are tipped over from a raised platform onto a hard level surface. The rules would require space around occupant seating positions to be maintained to afford occupants a survivable space in a crash. They would also require seats, overhead luggage racks, and window glazing to remain attached to their mountings during and after the test and require emergency exits to remain closed during the rollover test and operable after the test.

NHTSA says the new rules will cost bus makers between $5 million and $13 million annually, leading to “stronger roof structure, support pillars, and side walls, shock resistant latches for emergency exits, stronger seat and overhead luggage rack anchorages, and improved window mounting.” Direct costs per bus for the regulation is estimated at $282 to $507.

The new regulations will increase bus weight from 564 to 1,114 pounds and add an additional $2,118 to $5,523 in lifetime fuel costs.NHTSA estimates the rule will save two lives a year and eliminate four serious injuries.

NHTSA plans to unveil rules later requiring anti-rollover technology electronic stability control, which is already required on all cars and light duty trucks.

“The consequences for passengers in rollover crashes are severe,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “I want passengers to know that when this department sees opportunities to make their travel safer so that they can more confidently visit their families or get to work, we are going to do just that and we believe this proposal is a step in that direction.”

NHTSA said it considered requiring current buses to be retrofitted. But NHTSA said it “believes that major structural changes to the vehicle’s entire sidewall and roof structure would be needed for some existing buses (that are of the type covered by this rule) to meet the rollover structural integrity requirements” and are “cost-prohibitive.”

But NHTSA is studying the “feasibility, benefits, and costs of any potential requirement to retrofit existing buses with stronger emergency exit mechanisms and enhanced structural integrity to increase side window glazing retention to afford a similar level of anti-ejection protection for passengers riding in existing buses.”

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator Anne Ferro said the agency is “also “committed to further increasing motor coach safety through stricter oversight, in-depth investigations into high-risk companies, and by ensuring that drivers are properly licensed and medically fit for the job.”

This is the second major bus safety regulation announced over the last year.

In November, NHTSA finalized long-delayed regulations that will require lap and shoulder seat belts on commercial buses. But the agency will not require existing buses to be retrofitted with belts.

NHTSA has debated requiring seat belts on motor coaches since 1977. The new rules take effect in 2016 on commercial buses that typically travel fixed routes between major cities, to tourist destinations and for other commercial trips. The rules don’t apply to school buses and don’t affect the 29,000 commercial buses already on U.S. roads.

Seat belts also won’t be required on most public transit buses — those with “request-a-stop systems” — but some public intercity buses that act like commercial motor coaches will need belts. NHTSA is also excluding from the rules airport shuttle buses that transport passengers to parking lots or rental car facilities. Also exempted are prison buses.

NHTSA can’t force passengers to wear belts — only states can mandate belt use.

Motor coach travel remains one of the safest ways to travel, carrying 750 million passengers annually in the United States and Canada and traveling 1.8 billion miles. On average, 21 people die in motor coach crashes each year. Between 2000 and 2009, there were 87 fatal bus crashes resulting in 209 deaths, including 41 drivers — with just over half of the deaths in rollover crashes.

During the same period, more than 400,000 people were killed on U.S. roads.

NHTSA said the cost of requiring belts will be about $7 million annually — including slightly higher fuel costs because of the weight of belts — and will save an estimated two to nine lives per year and prevent several hundred injuries. NHTSA said if the costs were applied to all trips, it would add one cent per ticket.

A number of high-profile bus crashes prompted Congress last year to require NHTSA to set new rules upgrading bus safety and requiring belts; it said the rules had to be finalized by July 2013.

The National Transportation Safety Board has noted that bus crashes draw enormous attention — despite being incredibly safe — and high-profile crashes may damage public perceptions of motor coach travel.