The NTSB, which investigates accidents and their causes, has no authority to require safety changes it recommends.
But a bill passed by Congress in June 2012 directed the Department of Transportation to conduct research and tests on ways to prevent fires or mitigate the effects, among other safety issues. That included evacuating passengers, as well automatic fire suppression, smoke suppression and improved fire extinguishers. Representatives of the bus industry told Congress that manufacturers were increasingly and voluntarily adding such features.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has commissioned research on fire safety measures, and new rules could be proposed by 2015. So far, the government has not proposed any new standards related to passenger evacuation in event of a fire or other fire-related issues, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which lobbied Congress for tougher motor-coach safety standards.
"The legislation includes many mandates to the Transportation Department on many aspects of safety, some of them easy, others not so easy," said Jacqueline Gillan, president of the safety advocacy group. "Nonetheless, they all need to be done, and there have been no regulations even on the easy ones."
Silverado Stages, the San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based company that owns the charter bus involved in the crash, has a strong safety record, and it has said it is fully cooperating with the investigation. It is unclear what sort of fire-safety equipment the bus in Thursday's crash had, and the company couldn't be reached for comment Saturday.
As part of its investigation, the NTSB said it is trying to determine whether the FedEx driver might have fallen asleep or suffered a health problem and whether there were mechanical issues with the truck. The agency also is evaluating whether there should have been a barrier on the median to help prevent head-on collisions. Barriers are required when medians are less than 50 feet wide; this one was 60.
Joan Lowy reported from Washington, D.C. Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
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