WASHINGTON – House Democrats called for better inspections and tougher standards for bus operators Tuesday after the recent crash in Atlanta that left five college baseball players dead.
In a House hearing that highlighted partisan differences over government regulation versus free-market forces, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., asked why the government hasn't implemented long-standing recommendations for restraints such as seat belts or stronger windows that could prevent passengers from being ejected from their seats during a crash, as many victims were in the Georgia accident.
He and others also pointed to weaknesses in federal inspection procedures that, for example, let new companies operate for up to a year and a half without any meaningful federal safety review.
"Clearly the regulatory structure is not sufficient to the challenge," said DeFazio, who chairs the Transportation subcommittee on highways. "I don't think the American public would have a high level of confidence in this."
But Rep. John Duncan of Tennessee, the subcommittee's top Republican, cautioned against over-regulation and praised the bus industry as "probably the safest form of transportation."
"I'm concerned abut imposing unnecessary burdens which may not have an impact," he said, pointing to government figures showing an average of about 23 bus deaths per year over the past decade. "There has to be a balance."
Five players, the driver and the driver's wife died as a result of the March 2 crash in Atlanta in which a charter bus carrying Ohio's Bluffton University baseball team plunged off an overpass and crashed onto Interstate 75 below, ejecting some of the passengers. Twenty-nine people were injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, has for years recommended improved restraint systems that many experts say could prevent such ejections.
DeFazio and Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., also criticized the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's inspection process, asking how the agency could have missed a raft of violations leading up to a September 2005 Texas incident in which a bus carrying elderly people fleeing Hurricane Rita caught on fire because of an unlubricated wheel axle, killing 23 passengers.
John Hill, head of the FMCSA, said the agency had inspected the company several months before the incident but the "snapshot" review hadn't revealed problems. He acknowledged that most of the agency's inspections look at a company's procedures and policies rather than physical equipment, although he said the agency was improving its processes and doubled its inspections last year.
"One of the problems we have as an agency is dealing with the volume of vehicles involved," Hill said.