12/02/2009

AFT Activism Leading to Safer Motor Coaches, Field Trips

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The federal government, driven in part by the AFT's briefings and other awareness-raising efforts, has released a plan to improve motor coach safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation's action plan, released in November, found that driver fatigue, vehicle rollover, occupant ejection and operator maintenance contribute to most motor coach crashes. The plan identifies seven "priority action items" it intends to address through rule making.

"Considering that more than 750 million passengers are transported each year by motor coach, and that motor coaches are here to stay, we need to give passengers a fighting chance when it comes to accidents and rollovers," says George Williams, a leader in the AFT-affiliated Florida Education Association and president of the American Association of Classified School Employees. The AACSE is a partner with the AFT in pushing for safer motor coaches, also known as charter buses.

Donna Signs, a school bus driver instructor and president of the Owego (N.Y.) Apalachin Employees Association, says her goal for motor coach safety is "pretty simple. If motor coaches were to follow the standards for school buses and school bus drivers, any accidents involving a motor coach would have fewer injuries and deaths. School buses are built like tanks, and drivers are tested very vigorously."

Last spring, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered a full departmental review of motor coach safety. The resulting report is available online, and is summarized in a news release. Here are the actions the government plans to take:

  • Launch a rule-making process to require onboard electronic recording devices on all motor coaches to better monitor drivers' duty hours and manage fatigue.
  • Propose regulations that would prohibit texting and limit the use of phones and other devices by motor coach drivers.
  • Propose rules requiring seat belts on motor coaches.
  • Evaluate and develop roof crush performance requirements to improve the structural integrity of the vehicles.
  • Develop performance requirements and assess safety benefits for stability control to reduce rollover.
  • Enhance oversight of carriers that try to evade sanctions and other companies that act unsafely.
  • Set minimum knowledge requirements for drivers who are applying to transport passengers.

"There is a problem with allowing anyone to drive motor coaches without the certifications that school bus operators have to go through," says Elaine Prickett, a driver in Morgantown, W.Va., and member of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. "We are not hauling a cargo that can be replaced."

Karen Barnes, a school bus driver/trainer from Austin, Texas, who spoke during a safety briefing on Capitol Hill just days before LaHood ordered the review on April 30, also hopes the government will impose tougher standards on commercial buses. In particular, she wants better regulation of the huge picture windows that tend to pop out, ejecting or maiming students during rollovers. She also suggests more emergency exits and safer placement of fuel tanks.

Because parents and the public expect charter buses used for school activities to be as safe as school buses and driven by trained professionals, the AFT passed a resolution early this year calling for federal legislation that requires motor coaches and their drivers to meet the same standards as school buses and their drivers.

The AFT's position on student transportation is that children always should be transported in appropriate vehicles—and the safest vehicles on the road are yellow school buses. That said, the law does allow the use of other vehicles for extracurricular activities, and short of changing that law, these vehicles must also meet the highest standards possible, and must be driven by operators who meet the same high standards as school bus drivers.

This year's federal review of charter bus safety follows a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing about a 2008 motor coach crash in Utah that killed nine people. Other deadly crashes include a Texas tire fire in 2005 that got into the cabin and killed 23 elderly evacuees from Hurricane Rita.

The most harmful motor coach crashes between 1996 and 2005, the NTSB says, were divided about equally among multivehicle pileups, rollovers (charter buses are top-heavy) and roadside collisions. The NTSB's recommendations on charter bus safety have fallen on deaf ears since 1999—until this year. The recommendations include developing standard definitions and classifications for different types of motor coaches, developing standards and rules for protecting passengers and drivers, expanding research on how to keep passengers from ejecting, and issuing performance standards for roof strength. [Annette Licitra, Tish Olshefski]

December 2, 2009