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Recent bus crashes prompt call for safety improvements

A bus carrying 29 people in a Polish tour group from Niagara Falls to Trenton, N.J. veered off Interstate 81 near Binghamton during a severe downpour Tuesday.

The motor coach slid down an an 80-foot embankment and overturned, trapping a woman underneath for an hour.

Another bus crashed on July 22 on the Thruway in Waterloo, near Syracuse. The Ontario-based Farr Coach bus was struck by a tractor-trailer. Both vehicles burst into flames. The truck driver was killed, and 30 passengers were sent to area hospitals, two of them with serious injuries.

Just five days earlier, a blown tire was blamed for a bus rollover that killed two women on July 17 on Interstate 390, south of Rochester. The bus carrying Indian tourists was headed from Niagara Falls to Washington, D.C. The driver and 20 others also were injured.

Authorities across the state have stepped up enforcement on tour buses following a fiery crash near New York City on March 12 that killed 15 passengers. But safety advocates point to the recent crashes, including the ones in Western New York, as proof that more needs to be done to improve safety.

"It's becoming a very popular, very convenient mode of transportation," said Jacqueline S. Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. "The problem is that these travelers are being treated as second-class citizens.

"When you get on a plane, you have no question that the pilot is trained, the aircraft is in good working order and your safety risks will be completely minimized. But a lot of these curbside [motor coach] operators don't follow good safety practices," she said.

Gillan said authorities need to get tougher on the tour bus and motor coach industry. She told The Buffalo News that she testified before Congress asking for better safety standards in 2007 and could give the same speech if she testified again today.

"Millions of people are boarding these buses, which are being operated by unsafe and unfit carriers and unqualified drivers," she said. "Then these crashes happen, and we find they did have a terrible safety record, or they were speeding.

"Even when it's not the driver's fault, people are killed or injured because they don't have some of the basic safety protections that we have in other modes of transportation. No seat belt, no anti-ejection window glazing like we have in cars, no rollover prevention technology," she said.

Gillan faulted authorities for ignoring recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Advisory Board for more more than 40 years, including such things as standard seat belts for passengers.

The downstate bus crash did serve as a wake-up call for New York State.

Following an order to increase enforcement, more than 300 drivers have been taken out of service, 250 buses have been taken off the roads and about 3,000 road inspections have been done.

"We've definitely stepped it up," said William Reynolds, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. "We are working very hard to make bus travel as safe as possible. That is why we have been engaging in the crackdown."

State police also have started to track some of that stepped-up enforcement, said Lt. Glenn Miner, State Police spokesman. He noted a total of 387 moving traffic violations have been written for commercial buses since mid-March across the state.

"We are looking for unsafe driving on the roadways, especially with bus traffic. There is definitely an eye towards bus safety because of this," Miner said.

He said police can check driver logs and commercial licenses after someone is pulled over, but they are prohibited from randomly pulling buses over without cause.

Sgt. Ed Schramm, commercial and vehicle enforcement for State Police Troop A, which covers Western New York, said his officers patrol the Canadian border and are checking driver's logs, which are governed by federal standards.

"Federal standard is 10 hours of drive time [before a break] and a 15-hour work day. They have to get eight hours of off-duty rest time and can have a 70-hour work week over eight days, which can be split time off," Schramm said.

In Washington, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Coach Carrier Safety Administration is looking into shortcomings in the standards, and possible new safety rules. It will hold its 2011 Motorcoach Safety Summit in September. New York State transportation officials were the first to request the summit.

Driver fatigue was found to be the root cause of 37 percent of bus crashes and 36 percent of fatalities, according to the federal agency. But it did note that fatigue and inattention are likely underreported in studies since, unlike alcohol or drug use, they are difficult to identify after the fact. Consideration is being given to new technologies to detect driver fatigue, as is electronic log book monitoring, to avoid false records.

Other "root causes of crashes," such as driver behavior, medical issues of drivers and vehicle maintenance, were noted, and an enhanced state bus inspection system and enforcement to address high risk carriers and drivers was suggested. Addressing stability control to reduce rollover also was cited.

Gillan and her traffic safety organization agree.

"If there was an airline crash every other week," she said, "people would be outraged."

News Staff Reporter Maki Becker contributed to this report.