A commercial bus crashes in Utah about every four days, though it rarely results in a fatality.
There were 462 accidents in the state involving buses from 2002 through 2006, an average of 92 per year, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Nine of them were fatal, leaving 14 people dead, and 265 caused injuries to 461 people. Half the deaths occurred in one accident on Mount Nebo in 2002.
"It's something that every motor coach operator is concerned about, but the big perspective is motor coach travel has historically been a very safe way to travel and continues to be," said Steve Lewis, president of Salt Lake-based Lewis Stages, Utah's largest private transportation company. "It's very sensational when we have an accident."
Nine people died and 2 dozen were injured Jan. 6 when an Arrow Stage Lines tour bus overturned in remote San Juan County. The bus carried 51 Phoenix-area skiers returning from a trip to Telluride, Colo.
FMCSA defines a bus as a vehicle with seating for at least nine passengers, including the driver, which is driven for compensation. It oversees some 3,700 registered interstate bus companies, including 20 in Utah, which operate about 34,000 motor coaches, minibuses and vans.
Bus travel has gained momentum in the United States the past few years. According to the American Bus Association, there were 631 million passengers trips in 2006, nearly as many as commercial airlines carried that year.
Nationally, crashes involving private buses are trending upward, going from 7,039 in 2002 to 11,237 in 2006, according to FMCSA. The number of fatal accidents and the number of fatalities, however, has remained at around 330 per year over that period. Fatalities include people who died in vehicles that collided with buses.
Passenger deaths in bus crashes are relatively low. There were 48 fatal motor-coach crashes ones in which passengers or drivers died in the United States from 1996 to 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. An average of 14 passengers per year died in those wrecks.
Of those, 29 percent were rollovers. Passengers were ejected in 56 percent of the wrecks. Among all accidents during that time, 65 percent were single-vehicle crashes
where a bus ran off the road, hit a roadside object or rolled over.
"My impression is that crash rates for buses are quite low in comparison to other vehicle types," said Dan Blower, director of the Center for National Truck and Bus Statistics at the University of Michigan.
Charter buses, like the one that rolled in San Juan County, account for only 10 percent of all fatal bus accidents, according to a study Blower did in 2004. School and transit buses make up the bulk of the accidents.
Lewis, whose family has been in the transportation business since 1914, said having safe drivers and sound vehicles is constantly on his mind.
Those issues also are on the minds of federal regulators, though efforts to make bus travel safer haven't exactly rolled down the highway.
National Transportation Safety Board recommendations for motor coaches have languished for years, and congressional hearings have identified numerous FMCSA oversight and enforcement failings.
FMCSA administrator John Hill told a congressional committee last year the agency intends to increase bus company compliance reviews and establish inspection programs in all 50 states, among other things.
The agency always is looking for ways to make bus travel safer, said FMCSA spokesman Duane DeBruyne.
"We are making progress in reducing fatal and serious crashes," he said. But, he concedes, "in light of the tragedy in southern Utah it loses some meaning."
Enhanced protection for motor coach passengers is on the NTSB's list of most wanted safety improvements. Specifically, it recommends easy-opening emergency exit windows, crush-resistant roofs and seat belts. NHTSA has agreed to consider the recommendations over the next two to three years, but the NTSB notes progress is slow.
Also, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced a bill in December calling for sweeping scientific research to determine future bus safety standards.
NHTSA did start crash tests last month to look at those issues, a move the United Motorcoach Association, which represents 900 charter and tour bus operators, applauds.
"If there's a better way to protect people, we're all for it," said Victor Parra, association president and CEO. "We want to make sure that science drives policy, not the other way around. ... There shouldn't be any maybes when we're talking about people's lives."
Tests will including tipping buses and dropping them on their roofs, he said.
The outcome of the rollover in San Juan County might have been different had the NTSB recommendations been in place.
Lewis said the seat belt issue recently came up in an insurance policy meeting of bus operators. The feeling in the industry, he said, is that using seat belts "may be the prudent thing to do."
"I was kind of on the fence until this accident," he said, noting the roof of the Arrow Stage Lines bus was sheared off, spilling passengers to the ground. "If it will save lives in one freak situation, it's probably worth doing."
The cost to install and maintain safety belts would be relatively minimal, Lewis said.
Australia and Europe have required seat belts for many years. They have seen dramatic reductions in deaths from passengers striking other passengers or dangerous interior surfaces.
Driver fatigue; maintenance problems, in particular faulty tires; brakes and steering; and road conditions are the primary contributing factors to bus accidents.
The law does not require drivers to take special courses or road tests for driving in mountains or adverse weather conditions, though the commercial driver license exam has written questions about those conditions.
In Utah, the Utah Department of Transportation Motor Carriers Division monitors commercial bus operations.
"Generally, we don't find a lot of violations with motor-coach buses," said Rick Clasby, division director. "Typically, from a vehicle standpoint, they're in pretty good shape."
FMCSA lists 20 federally regulated commercial passenger carriers in Utah on its Web site. It issued safety ratings to only 10, apparently lacking sufficient information to rate the others. Nine received a satisfactory grade and one a conditional rating. (Ratings are available at ai.fmcsa.dot.gov/passenger/home.asp.)
"We've been unfortunate to have two pretty traumatic accidents that resulted in multiple fatalities. It's alarming," Clasby said. "But overall, we don't have a lot of bus accidents."
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