Expert Commentary

Bus crashes in the United States: What does the research say?

2013 review of relevant research and data that can provide context for bus crashes, including city and school vehicles as well as charter and tour motorcoaches.

Two major tour bus accidents grabbed headlines in early 2013 — one in California and one in Massachusetts — injuring many passengers, and in the case of the California incident, killing at least eight people. Such incidents are reported nearly every week in the United States; media reports often cite the bus company’s operating record, but the larger data picture may also be helpful.

What does the research say? It is worth bearing in mind that there are important distinctions between data for all buses (including city and school buses) and those for charter and tour motorcoaches. Be wary, too, that accident data may involve all parties involved, not just bus occupants. With that in mind, the following research provides perspective:

  • A 2011 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study titled “Report on Curbside Motorcoach Safety,” notes that during 2009 — the latest year of available data — about 241 million person-trips took place on all charter and tour buses. The study focuses on the emerging curbside bus business, but it contains more general data and perspective across the bus and motorcoach industry. The researchers note that “buses and other commercial motor vehicles (CMV) have a higher likelihood of fatal accident involvement per registered vehicle” (though the victims are often in other vehicles, or are pedestrians and bicyclists.) For bus passengers and drivers, there is relatively more safety when accidents happen: “During 2009, the bus occupant fatality rate was 45 deaths per 100,000 accidents compared with 251 deaths per 100,000 accidents for passenger car occupants.” Moreover, “between 2005 and 2010, the average number of motorcoach accidents annually was 1,003. Thirty-two accidents were fatal, resulting in 44 deaths; 505 were nonfatal and 467 involved property only.”
  • A 2010 study, “Type of Motor Carrier and Driver History in Fatal Bus Crashes,” from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, examined data from 1999 to 2005 to produce a statistical snapshot of an average year on American roads. The researchers note that, on average, about 63,000 buses [of all kinds] are involved in an accident each year; about 14,000 result in an injured person, and 325 result in a fatal injury. About 50 passengers (including the driver) are killed, on average, in a given year. Inter-city buses are 1.9 more likely to become involved in an accident, and charter operations have “significantly higher odds of driver error.”
  • A 2012 study in the Journal of Safety Research, “Risk factors Associated with Bus Accident Severity in the United States,” notes that buses are not, by some measures, necessarily safer than cars. The researchers state that “while bus accidents comprise a relatively small share of the total accidents (0.6%) in the United States, the number of bus accidents per million passenger miles (3.04) is comparable to the number of car accidents per million driven miles (3.21).”  The study focuses, however, on the characteristics of bus drivers who are involved in accidents. First, “young novice bus drivers increase the risk for higher accident severity.” However, the findings also suggest that “accident severity increases beyond the age of 55, and the most significant increase is for bus drivers over 65 years old. In fact, model results show that relative to drivers between 35 and 55 years old, drivers over 65 years of age increase the likelihood of light injuries by 18.6%, of severe non-incapacitating injuries by 33.1%, of severe incapacitating injuries by 52.3%, and of fatality by 18.0%.” The researchers also find that “83.0% of the bus drivers involved in bus accidents do not exhibit risky driving behaviors,” and only a “small percent (nearly 4%) of the bus drivers involved in accidents are charged with serious offenses such as speeding, drowsy driving and driving under the influence of alcohol.”
  • A 2012 NTSB information brief notes the following context: “Nationwide, more than 700 million passengers — nearly the entire population of Europe — are transported by buses annually. Most travel to and from their destinations safely. Yet despite the strong safety record of buses … there were more than 250 people killed and 20,000 injured in bus-related crashes in 2009. From 2000-2007, there were 1,093 fatal accidents involving large buses, resulting in 1,315 fatalities and 3,471 injuries.” [These fatality and injury numbers include pedestrians or people riding in other motor vehicles.]

It is worth noting that motorcoach safety has a fairly lengthy history as a political cause, often spurred by high-profile accidents; the NTSB has lobbied for a number of specific safety improvements and in 2011 Congress passed the Motor-coach Enhanced Safety Act.

Tags: safety, research roundup

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