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Could Seat Belts Prevent Bus Crash Deaths?

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Safety experts say that requiring seat belts on buses may have prevented deaths in two fatal bus crashes that occurred in the past week. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has advocated requiring seat belts on all buses since 1968. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) has balked at such a requirement, insisting there is not sufficient evidence to prove safety belts are needed in passenger buses. The agency also has resisted doing research.

In both accidents, the buses rolled over, and witnesses said that some of those killed were ejected from their seats. A total of 20 people were killed in both accidents, and the death toll has many consumer safety advocates once again calling for seat belts to be installed on buses. Right now, safety belts are only installed on the driver’s seat. Safety experts argue that when multiple deaths have occurred on buses, it has usually been a rollover accident where passengers were ejected from their seats. They contend that seat belts would save lives.

The first of the fatal bus crashes, which occurred last Friday morning in Texas, claimed the lives of 17 Vietnamese Catholics on their way to a religious festival. Dozens of others were injured. Initial reports say that the charter bus blew an illegally treaded tire, skidded off the highway and overturned.

Yesterday, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said that “grossly deficient vehicle maintenance” contributed to the accident, and took the unusual step of declaring the unlicensed Houston company that owned the bus an “imminent hazard” to public safety and ordered its owner to cease all commercial operations immediately.

Then yesterday, a bus carrying tourists who had been visiting a Harrah’s casino overturned near Tunica, Mississippi, killing 43 people. Dozens of people where injured, and at least one is in critical condition. The investigation into the Mississippi bus crash has yet to determine a cause or contributing factors.

Some in Congress are working to enact legislation that would finally require seat belts on buses. In addition to requiring seat belts and stronger seating system, the legislation , co-sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, would also mandate glazing on windows to prevent passengers from being ejected.

In the past, the bus industry has successfully lobbied to block such safety legislation. Critics of the industry accuse it of being more concerned with profits than protecting lives of passengers. Adding seat belts would add about 1 percent to the cost of manufacturing a bus. But these two fatal accidents could finally provide the motivation for both lawmakers and regulators to finally act.

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