Lieff Cabraser Civil Justice Blog

Tragic California College Tour Bus Accident Highlights Need for Greater Bus Safety

Bus Accident Highlights Need for Safety Improvements

The investigation into the cause of the deadly bus crash on Interstate 5 near Orland, California, involving the collision of a FedEx tanker truck and a motor coach transporting high school students to tour Humboldt State University is in its initial stages. Investigators will seek to identify why the FedEx truck crossed the medium of the highway as well as measures that could have been incorporated in the design of the bus that could have resulted in fewer fatalities.

The explosion and fire that consumed the tour bus, however, serves as a stark reminder of the need for bus manufacturers to make motor coaches as safe as possible. They must design buses, use materials and add features that sharply reduce the likelihood of fires starting and, if a fire starts, slow its spread so that passengers can safely evacuate the bus.

Manufacturers owe a duty to design and make safe vehicles. For bus makers, this duty includes planning for the bus being involved in a high-impact crashes and ensuring that the fuel tank does not explode or that the fuel lines are not punctured and a deadly fire erupts. Proper fuel tank design and shielding can prevent post collision fires. Sharp objects that could likely penetrate the fuel tank must not be included in the vehicles’ design.

And should a fire start, it does not have to result in a deadly fireball. The survival of passengers can be greatly increased by incorporating fire suppression systems in bus design.

Failure to Make Passenger Safety the Highest Priority Has Led to a Legacy of Fatal Bus Fires

Bus safety is vital for the obvious reasons that when an accident occurs, the possibility of multiple casualties is real and heightened.

Safety standards to make large buses easier for passengers to escape after a crash have not been adopted 15 years after accident investigators called for new rules.

Even more troubling, bus fire safety has been stalled since the 1970’s. Existing fire standards for buses apply only to small fire sources from inside the bus such as lit cigarettes.

In 2005, 23 passengers were killed in a motorcoach fire near Wilmer, Texas as they were evacuating as a result of Hurricane Rita. The National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) found that deficiencies with design, materials, and fire detection systems enabled a wheel well fire to spread rapidly throughout the vehicle.

Following this deadly bus fire the NTSB called for safety standards that could make buses much better protected from fire, including improved fuel tank protections tanks.

As noted by the NTSB: “Once a fire starts, materials and design can slow fire propagation, allowing the operator more time to respond. For example, in motorcoaches, the use of fire-resistant materials for sidewalls in fire-prone areas could prevent fires from entering passenger compartments.”

Subsequently, the NTSB recommended that buses also be equipped with fire suppression systems to control fires, just like building sprinkler systems. Fire suppression, the NTSB commented, “holds the greatest potential for saving lives.”

The bus industry largely ignored these recommendations, which were never mandated by Congress. The NTSB only investigates accidents and their causes, and lacks authority to require any of the safety changes it recommends.

Henry Jasny, chief counsel and vice president for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told the Los Angeles Times recently that the bus industry fought their efforts to get requirements for fire-resistant materials, better firefighting systems and more rigorous design standards to withstand collision forces. Currently, large buses lack the energy absorption and protective structures that are routine in passenger cars, Jasny said. “These things are essentially like sardine cans.”

While bus industry has lagged in adopting fire preventions and suppression technologies, the example of NASCAR and other motorsports shows the dramatic impact such technologies can have on safety. Race cars contain fuel tanks with a flexible inner liner, known as a fuel cell, which minimizes the potential of a puncture of the fuel tank and keeps the gasoline from exploding even in high-velocity, high-energy collisions.

To avoid further horrific bus fire tragedies, buses should be equipped with fuel cells, multiple exits, fire suppression systems, energy absorption and protective structures, and removed highly combustible fabrics and other materials that quickly produce overpowering toxic smoke and fumes in a fire.

By Fabrice Vincent.