Serious bus crashes are a relative rarity

NTSB says industry in U.S. has good record of safety on the road

July 26, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

It might not have seemed that way to the 33 passengers aboard the Greyhound that flipped over on Interstate 95 in Baltimore yesterday, but the intercity bus industry and its biggest carrier both have strong records for delivering riders safe and sound.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency, commented in 1999 that "school bus and motor coach travel are two of the safest forms of transportation in the United States."

The average number of passengers killed on motor coaches annually in the United States was four, the agency reported.

Bill Mahorney, safety director of the American Bus Association, said the average has remained "less than 10" for decades.

"We're ahead of virtually every mode that travels on the ground," he said.

Ronald R. Knipling, senior research scientist at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, agreed with that assessment. "In general the record is extremely good as far as the crash rates and number of crashes," he said.

There have been some exceptions.

In 1999, 22 of 42 mostly elderly passengers on a Custom Bus Charters casino excursion died in Louisiana when their motor coach crashed. Federal authorities would later charge that Custom drivers routinely falsified their driving logs.

Greyhound was severely criticized by the NTSB over a 1998 crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that killed the driver and six passengers. Federal regulators rejected the company's contention that the driver suffered a heart attack, concluding that he was fatigued and taking amphetamines.

And in a bizarre 2001 incident in Tennessee, a possibly deranged Croatian passenger slashed a Greyhound driver's throat, grabbed the wheel and crashed the bus. Six people died, including the assailant.

But overall, Greyhound's track record in recent years has been impressive for a carrier of its size, industry officials say.

During the past two years, the carrier has been involved with crashes that killed three people and injured 90, according to figures kept by the National Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The agency, which regulates the trucking and commercial bus industries, found that Greyhound's percentage of vehicles and drivers taken out of service after inspections was less than half the national average.

Greyhound's percentage of vehicles that failed inspection was less than 10 percent compared with a national average of 23 percent in 2003, the last year when comparative figures are available.

Its drivers failed to pass muster only 1.5 percent of the time, compared with a national average of almost 7 percent.

"Greyhound has got a tremendous safety record - much better than the industry average," said Mahorney.

Anne Folmnsbee, a Greyhound spokeswoman, said incidents such as yesterday's are rare.

"We go above and beyond what the federal requirements are with driver training," she said.

Folmnsbee insisted that bus travel remains far safer than "cars, trucks, trains, planes and other commercial vehicles."

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 40 occupants of buses of all kinds were killed in crashes in the United States in 2003.

By contrast, according to the federal agency, almost 20,000 Americans died in passenger cars.

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