Past Crashes Show Importance Of Pre-Trip Passenger Safety Briefings

By Greg Hanson, owner of Professional Bus Safety Services

On April 10, 2014, a motorcoach carrying 45 student passengers and chaperones was traveling northbound on Interstate 5 near the town of Orland, CA. At approximately 5:40 p.m., the driver of a semi-truck traveling south suffered an unknown emergency and lost control of the truck. The truck crossed over the center divide and struck the motorcoach nearly head-on. The impact caused the fuel tanks of the truck to split open and the subsequent spilled fuel caught fire, engulfing both vehicles. Both drivers and eight passengers were killed. Ten passengers were injured seriously enough to require extended hospitalization; no passengers were uninjured.

On November 7, 2023, a motorcoach carrying 54 students and chaperones was traveling westbound on Interstate 70 in Ohio when the driver slowed for traffic due to a collision farther up the road. The driver of a semi-truck behind the coach failed to slow, colliding with an SUV following the coach and driving it into the rear of the bus and then overriding it. The impact caused the coach to strike another SUV and another semi-truck before coming to rest with the first SUV and the first truck still in contact behind. The impact caused a fire that consumed the back of the motorcoach and the other two vehicles. Three students in the bus and three adult chaperones in the SUV were killed and numerous other passengers and the motorcoach driver were injured in the collisions.

These accidents have many circumstances in common: Both involve a motorcoach carrying students on a limited access highway struck by an out-of-control truck. Both involve multiple casualties due to fire and blunt force trauma. But investigations in both crashes revealed one other factor: despite the presence of fire, in both instances, many passengers were unaware of the presence of passenger safety equipment and how to use it.

In the Orland crash, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators interviewing survivors found that none of them recalled the driver giving a safety briefing prior to departing Los Angeles that morning. One person claimed to be wearing a seatbelt, while at least 14 of the 29 people interviewed were unaware of the presence of emergency exits.

In the Ohio crash, the bus was not equipped with seatbelts. Investigators have discovered that despite the presence of fire, none of the emergency exits were opened, even though all the exits were operational. Preliminary investigation has revealed that no safety briefing was offered, nor could any passenger or close family with experience on motorcoach trips recall having ever received a safety briefing.

For decades, regulations covering student transportation in California have required the driver to give a safety briefing before departure on all activity trips that covers, at a minimum, the location and operation of emergency exits and the onboard fire extinguisher and the requirement to wear a seatbelt if the bus is so equipped. The driver is also required to visually check that all student passengers are properly belted in prior to departure from any stops. In 2018, in response to the Orland crash, the California legislature extended the safety briefing requirement to all trips, including informing passengers that state law required them to wear seatbelts, but not requiring the driver to check as on a school activity trip.

In April 2024, the Ohio Public Utilities Commission petitioned the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance Passenger Committee to request that the federal government mandate safety briefings on all motorcoach trips. Previously, the NTSB promoted this as a safety action item on their Most Wanted list, but to date, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has only encouraged voluntary action by individual companies.

The motorcoach industry prides itself on being the safest mode of ground transportation available to the traveling public. Part of that commitment to safety is to always operate to a heightened standard of care that takes passenger safety into account in ways that aren’t about driving the bus down the road.

If your company is not currently mandating your operators to give a safety briefing (either a speech or a video) before trip departure, it is in your best interests to start. To paraphrase something a friend of mine once said, “Operators get many hours of training before they’re allowed to drive unsupervised and then annually afterwards, while passengers only get the training you provide.” Take a moment to tell them about the safety equipment on your coach and inform them of their responsibilities. It may save you many headaches in litigation should the worst happen. Your passengers will appreciate your efforts.

Greg Hanson is the owner of Professional Bus Safety Services and offers consulting in bus safety, driver training and expert witness services in legal matters. He can be reached online at www.probussafety.com or by email at probussafety@gmail.com.

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