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Fatal bus crashes prompt calls for more-stringent safety laws

The death of a 21-year-old Montgomery County, Pa., student in a bus crash on the New Jersey Turnpike last month helped put bus safety in a bright Washington spotlight, with Senate subcommittee hearings and calls for new safety laws.

It prompted the federal government to shut down the bus operator, Super Luxury Tours of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. It triggered a wrongful-death lawsuit against the bus company.

And it brought the father of Troy Nguyen, of Royersford, Pa., into a sorrowful fraternity -- the parents of bus crash victims.

"I wanted to break something, but I couldn't move. My body felt frozen," Trong Nguyen said of his reaction when a doctor at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., told him on the night of March 14 that his son was dead. "I couldn't say anything. I just needed to see him right away."

Taken to his son, Nguyen said, "I touched his face, his body, his arm. It was so painful. There was just such incredible pain."

John Betts of Bryan, Ohio, is angry and frustrated that Nguyen is going through what he endured four years ago when a crash killed his 20-year-old son.

David Betts was one of five Bluffton University baseball players who died when their team bus plunged off an overpass and onto I-75 in Atlanta en route from Ohio to Florida on March 2, 2007.

"This is my biggest fear," Betts said recently. "Why do more people have to die to make the point that we need some common-sense safety standards?"

Both young men died when they were hurled from their seats and partially ejected from the buses. Seat belts likely would have saved both of them; the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration estimates that seat belts in buses would reduce the risk of fatal injuries in rollover crashes by 77 percent.

The crash that killed Troy Nguyen and the driver of the Philadelphia-bound bus followed by just two days the crash of a bus in New York City that killed 15 people and seriously injured eight as it was returning from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.

The crashes have given new impetus to bills in Congress that would require buses -- like passenger cars and airplanes -- to have seat belts. The bills also would require safer windows, stronger roofs, stabilizers to reduce rollovers, and technology to monitor drivers' performance and hours on duty.

The bus industry has responded by supporting a less-stringent safety bill introduced this month that would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to do more research before issuing new safety standards, give companies up to 18 years to retrofit buses with safety equipment, and provide federal grants and tax credits to bus companies to pay for safety upgrades.

Seat belts have been required on buses in Australia since the early 1990s and in Europe since 2006. In the United States, Greyhound Lines, the nation's largest intercity bus operator, announced last year that it would begin installing lap-and-shoulder seat belts on all its new buses. So far, about 205 of Greyhound's 1,200 buses and all 75 of its low-fare BoltBus coaches have seat belts.

Regardless of what Congress does, a rule requiring lap-and-shoulder belts in all new buses could be issued this year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has proposed such a requirement. If a final rule is issued this year, NHTSA likely will give bus makers three years to comply.

Industry leaders have objected that new safety requirements, including seat belts, could be prohibitively expensive and drive many small bus operators out of business.

Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, said it could cost as much as $80,000 to add the safety measures proposed in one bill.

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