By Larry Bodine, Publisher of The National Trial Lawyers
The spate of horrific bus accidents in California this year has aimed the spotlight on safety shortcomings of long-haul, mass transit and school buses. On average, 21 occupants in motor coaches and large buses are killed and 7,934 are injured every year in highway crashes, according to federal records.
California is seeing a frightening number of bus crashes in 2014:
- On April 10 a FedEx truck careened across the center median in Orland, CA, north of Sacramento, and slammed head-on into a chartered bus carrying 44 high school students on a college visit. The wreck burst into flames, killing 10 people -- seven of whom were suffocated by the smoke. At least 15 lawsuits seeking millions in damages have been filed against FedEx, charging that its trucks have a history of catching from mechanical problems and improper cargo loading. The lawsuits also charge Silverado States for failing to provide adequate exits, forcing students to escape through windows.
- On May 21 a charter bus crashed, slid down an embankment and rolled over on its side about 50 feet off the road when steel pipes were scattered across the highway from a jackknifed big rig. Riders on the low-cost charter bus were jolted awake at 2:15 AM in Blythe, CA, near the Arizona border. Four people were killed and seven were seriously injured.
- On August 14 a drunk driver dozed off at the wheel at 6:50 AM and crashed into a school bus with 32 students on board in Somerset, CA, west of Sacramento. Thankfully, no students were seriously hurt, because of quick evasive action by the school bus driver. The drunk was hospitalized.
Safety laws come too late
The carnage is happening nationwide with 12,000 bus crashes injuring 23,000 people and killing 280 more in 2012, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). "The traveling public deserves safer service and peace of mind when they board a motor coach or large bus," said Acting Administrator David Friedman of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "Stronger large bus structures, combined with seat belt use will help keep passengers secured and protected in the event of a crash."
NHTSA will finally require lap and shoulder seat belts in 2016 on newly-built over-the-road buses -- but not transit or school buses. On July 30, 2014, NHTSA also proposed to require a crash-proof space around bus passengers to protect them in rollovers.
None of these laws affect existing, run-down buses. T he action is too little, too late, and many victims of deadly bus crashes are turning to the courts to get compensation.
Buses can carry up to 55 passengers -- as much as a commercial jet -- so that every crash is a potential catastrophe. Approximately 700 million passengers - equal to the entire population of Europe -- are transported in the US on commercial buses each year. The most vulnerable people -- students and senior citizens -- make up half of the riders. Buses are a popular mode of transportation for schools, sports teams, churches and vacationers -- endangering deeply-loved members of a community.
Under the law, common carriers such as buses are strictly liable for any harm they cause to riders, regardless of whether the carrier acted negligently. Legal actions against bus operators have pointed out that the cost of equipping new motor coaches with lifesaving safety features is only 10 cents per passenger per trip. Yet by comparison, the cost of a crash is astronomical. A crash in New York in 2011 cost more than $90 million to compensate for the 15 deaths and 18 injuries and other costs.
The most dangerous type of buses in 2012, according to the FMCSA, were:
- School buses, which accounted for 41% of buses involved in fatal crashes.
- Mass transit buses accounted for 34% of fatal crashes.
- Long-haul buses accounted for 13% of fatal crashes.
- Smaller shuttle buses accounted for the balance.
Human error at fault
The FMCSA says human error is the primary cause of these crashes, such as a driver who failed to look for a hazard or who looked but did not see it. Other leading causes are inattention to driving, the line of sight being obstructed, the driver being in a hurry, inadequate evasive action taken or being unfamiliar with the road.
Injured passengers can recover for lost wages, emotional pain and suffering, loss of earning capacity, scarring, disfigurement, nursing home care and plastic surgery by pursuing irresponsible bus operators in court.
Gone are the days when riders could confidently "take the bus and leave the driving to us." "The consequences for passengers in rollover crashes are severe," said US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "I want passengers to know that when this department sees opportunities to make their travel safer, we are going to do just that."
But until that sentiment becomes reality, caution is the watchword for today's bus riders.