This week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made recommendations for improving safety on motorcoaches, following an investigation of a fatal crash last year in Northern California that killed 10 people, including five high school students.
Following an investigation, the NTSB recommended to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that they address fire performance standards; pretrip safety briefings; improve vehicle design to simplify evacuations; require the development of minimum performance standards for event data recorders in trucks and motorcoaches and require these to be installed.
On April 10, 2014, at about 5:40 p.m., a FedEx truck traveling southbound in the right lane on Interstate 5 near Orland, California, veered left into the 58-foot-wide median, crashing through bushes and entering opposing traffic. The truck collided with a Silverado Stages motorcoach bus and a Nissan Altima. The impact caused the FedEx truck and motorcoach bus to burst into flames.
The bus passengers were 43 high school students and three adult chaperones headed to Humboldt State University for a weekend visit.
The crash investigation uncovered “inadequacies” in the fire performance standards for commercial passenger vehicle interiors, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 302. Under FMVSS 302, flammability testing involves small-scale fire spurces, like cigarettes and matches, which according to NTSB, are different from the most common causes of bus fires.
NTSB also found that of the two motorcoach drivers, neither the one who started the trip nor the one who later took over, discussed safety instructions nor played prerecorded briefings the company provided. Many passengers were unable to find or open emergency exit windows, with at least two dying from asphyxiation after inhaling smoke from the fire.
“The investigation brought to light the difficulty of getting out of a burning motorcoach,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart. “It is unacceptable for anyone who survives a crash to perish in a post-crash fire because the exits were too hard to find or too difficult to use.”
“A pre-trip safety briefing or a video about evacuation could have expedited the evacuation process and possibly saved lives and mitigated injuries,” the NTSB said in a statement.
The Board also found that the windows in the motorcoach involved in the crash were over seven feet off the ground, and did not have the ability to remain open, thus making safe, speedy evacuation more challenging. It recommended having a secondary door for use as an emergency exit, along with improving lighting and signage standards.
“The Board concluded that current standards lack adequate requirements for emergency lighting and signage and reiterated several longstanding previous recommendations for standards that that would require independently powered lighting fixtures, use of photo luminescent material to mark emergency exits, and windows that remain open after being opened for emergency evacuations,” read the statement.
The exact cause of the crash is still unknown. NTSB ruled out truck and motorcoach driver experience, licensing, training, substance use, mechanical issues and weather as potential causes.
Hart added that event recorders in both the motorcoach and FedEx truck, like those used in aircraft, may have possibly offered more insight into what caused the crash.
“With access to event data recorders, we might have been able to determine why the truck crossed the median, which could have enabled us to make recommendations to prevent it from happening again,” Hart said. “Much of the reason that aviation is so safe today is that we have required such recorders for decades so that we can learn the lessons of accidents. But they are still not required in commercial trucks or motorcoaches despite more than a decade of recommendations by the NTSB.”