Thursday, November 3, 2016

Transit Bus Safety

It is an American specialty that lawyers parade victims in front of cameras at press conferences at a time of tragedy and mourning directing the discussion into the issues of liability and claims.

Baltimore's Billy Murphy, well known from frequent appearances on local TV screens, presented bus crash victim Michelle Kennedy a day after the terrible event that killed six when Michelle was probably still in shock and next of kin of the fatally injured, colleagues at MTA, and bus riders were still trying to grasp what happened.


2014 model MTA bus
Baltimore's Mayor chimed in with her hope "that something good" could come of this tragedy, hinting at bus safety standards. Although the exact cause of this worst public transit crash in Baltimore in decades is still unknown, it is safe to say that little in terms of regulations could have saved the MTA bus occupants from a truck-like vehicle slamming into its side at what appeared to have been a high rate of speed.

However this crash occurred, it should remain clear that public transportation is one of the safest modes available in the US. In all of 2010 there were 215 fatalities involving all modes of public transit nationwide (including pedestrians) compared to 32,885 road fatalities (including pedestrians and buses), a number that unfortunately increased to 38,300 in 2015. 44 people riding commercial buses (all types) were killed in 2014 according statistics provided by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

news conference with crash victim
The NTSB has, indeed, looked into bus safety at numerous occasions with a special focus on motor coaches and school buses and other operations which are not subjected to a uniform standard of safety regulations. The issues were operational deficiencies such as unqualified drivers, drivers with hazardous medical conditions, inadequate maintenance practices, and the operation of buses with mechanical defects. Additionally, in 2016 FTA announced a final rule for transit bus for testing  of new bus types. It applies to tests buses are subjected to before they are admitted as eligible transit buses, i.e. if they fail those tests FTA funds cannot be used to purchase them. Federal law applying to transit buses are the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations which Maryland has adopted in the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR).

COMAR 11.22.03 prescribes preventive maintenance standards for certain
vehicles, including passenger buses. These include standards for alignment;
suspension; steering; brake systems; tires; wheels, rims, lock rings, studs,
and nuts; accelerator pedal and air throttle; fuel storage and delivery system;
exhaust system; universal joints and u-clamps; frame, body, and sheet metal;
lighting; electrical equipment; emergency equipment; seats and seat belts; sun
visor; mirrors; glazing; windshield wipers and washers; defroster; automatic
transmission gear selector/neutral safety switch; speedometer and odometer;
brake and clutch pedal; and horn. 
MTA has developed fleet management plans and standard operating procedures (SOP) based on APTA standards, Federal Motor Carrier Standards, and best practices.(FTA Report). 

crash scene Tuesday morning (SUN photo)
It appears likely that the crash was caused by the school bus driver having been incapacitated before crashing into the transit bus either through a medical condition or through the preceding impact about 200 yards west of the transit bus. There, the school bus violently rear-ended a passenger vehicle which was stopped in the roadway turning left in front of the bus. Circumstances suggest that the driver had somehow slumped onto the accelerator making the bus go faster than it normally would on Frederick Avenue with a 35mph speed limit. It went on a straight line which led into the oncoming bus where Frederick Avenue follows a curve. Media report that the driver apparently had failed to provide the necessary health certificates and lost his commercial license effective September 1, 2016.

School bus 1955
Compared to transit buses, school buses are much more primitive vehicles. Driven by cost, school buses are bus-bodies mounted on the chassis of regular trucks. The bus bodies haven't changed much in 60 years or so. They are still riveted and still have those tiny vertical slide windows and a rear emergency door. Because of this construction method most have high floors, and a front engine whereas modern transit buses are low floor for easier boarding with the engine in the rear. The high center of gravity for school buses makes them more prone to tipping over. School bus operations are outsourced to a variety of private vendors with very different safety records, driver training procedures and fleet maintenance standards. Many school bus drivers are part-time retirees who took up driving commercial vehicles at an older age, potentially making them less practiced than typical transit bus drivers. Higher age school bus drivers would statistically be more likely to have a medical condition. (Airplane pilots have a mandatory retirement age).
school bus 1955

None of the usually discussed additional bus safety measures such as seat belts would have prevented fatalities in a violent impact such as the one that occurred Tuesday on Frederick Avenue. The National Safety Council NSC has advocated seat-belts for school buses.

What would prevent any type crash based on a failure of the operator would be autonomous vehicle (AV) buses if they would be operated in a setting where all other vehicles are also self driving. The future of AV transit has already begun in Helsinki where a few small automated transit buses operate in mixed traffic (they still have an operator during the test phase).

Tragic crashes have often provoked good additional safety measures. This terrible crash, though, doesn't seem suitable for a bus safety debate. It should cause sympathy with those who lost their mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and siblings and reflection on how suddenly life can be upended.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Updated