From Tragedy to Turning Point

By Chairman Christopher A. Hart

NTSB Investigator Robert Accetta documents the damage to the motorcoach.
NTSB Investigator Robert Accetta documents the damage to the motorcoach.

On the evening of April 10, 2014, dozens of injured high-school students struggled to exit a burning motorcoach after it was struck head on by a truck-tractor pulling two trailers in Orland, California.

Their vision was impaired by thick smoke, and many hesitated to jump from the emergency windows that were more than 7 feet above ground.

These students had not received a pre-trip safety briefing explaining emergency egress or the importance of using seat belts. There were no printed safety cards for them to consult.

No emergency exit lighting guided them. The heavy emergency exit windows were a challenge to stay open long enough for students to escape through them.

To make matters worse, the motorcoach interior materials were not designed to resist such a major fire, so the fire and toxic fumes spread rapidly.

If these students had been passengers on an airline, they would not have experienced the same egress problems. The interior of their plane would have been built with fire-resistant materials capable of resisting a major fire. They would have been given a safety briefing and would have had access to printed safety instructions. They would have been guided by independently powered emergency exit lighting (floor lighting below the smoke) and special emergency exit signage.

Five students died as a result of the fire and the crash that had led to it. So did their three adult chaperones, their driver, and the driver of the truck-tractor that struck the motorcoach.

The National Transportation Safety Board was created to determine what causes crashes such as this one and then to make recommendations which, if acted on, will help prevent recurrences of those tragedies. On July 14, we met to discuss this crash and fire.

As a result of our investigation, we made recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

We also reiterated recommendations that we had previously made to NHTSA—some of which date back to 1999 and 2000—that have not yet been acted upon.

In large part, as a result of NTSB aviation accident investigations and recommendations, air travel has become exceptionally safe. But standards of occupant protection in other transportation modes, especially highway, have lagged behind.

Many of the recommendations we issued or reiterated as a result of this crash, if acted upon, will give motorcoach passengers a level of safety protection comparable to that of a passenger traveling by air.

We also addressed the absence of event recorders that can help us determine why a crash occurred.

In aviation, cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders have been required for decades. The data yielded from these systems have helped the industry move toward safer operations.

But in highway transportation, event data recorders are still not required equipment on either truck-tractors or buses.

We know from witness statements and physical evidence that the truck-tractor was traveling southbound in the right lane on Interstate-5. It moved into the left lane, crossed a 58-foot-wide median, and emerged going the wrong way in the northbound lanes. There it struck a passenger car, sending it spinning off the highway to the east, and then it crashed into the motorcoach.

We were not able to determine why the truck crossed over the median. If the truck-tractor had been equipped with an event data recorder, we might have learned more about why it departed its lane and caused this crash.

In U.S. aviation today, years can sometimes pass between fatal crashes of scheduled commercial flights. Moreover, when such crashes are survivable, the vast majority of passengers are able to exit.

When Asiana Airlines flight 214 crashed in San Francisco on July 6, 2013, impact forces were catastrophic. Yet 99 percent of the 307 occupants survived. Ninety-eight percent of the passengers were able to self-evacuate.

The Orland crash was a tragedy, but it can also be a turning point. Standards of safety in highway vehicle fire-resistant design, emergency lighting, and emergency instructions can improve, if regulators take action.

We urge NHTSA and the FMCSA to move forward on our new recommendations, and for NHTSA to act on the recommendations that we reiterated. By doing so, many such crashes could be prevented in the future.

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