A bus full of young people and chaperones on an out-of-town trip. A truck driver crossing into opposing traffic. The truck striking the bus head-on, resulting in a fiery wreck. The front door of the bus being rendered inoperable. Flames spreading quickly. Passengers on the bus struggling to evacuate. Some not making it out in time.
Do these details sound familiar? They describe the April 2014 truck-motorcoach collision in Orland, California, in which 10 people were killed. But those same details also apply to an infamous incident that happened more than 25 years ago: the Carrollton, Kentucky, bus crash that killed 27 people.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last week issued recommendations based on its investigation of the Orland crash, which involved a motorcoach that was transporting high school students and chaperones on a trip to visit a college.
NTSB found that a combination of factors made it difficult for passengers to evacuate from the motorcoach after it was struck by a truck-tractor and became engulfed in flames. Here are some of the investigative agency’s findings:
• “The lack of a pre-trip safety briefing led to confusion and panic during the motorcoach evacuation, as many passengers struggled to locate and open the emergency exit windows.”
• “The quick-spreading fire and thick smoke prevented at least two passengers from extricating themselves from the motorcoach, resulting in their fatal injuries.”
• “The combination of the visibility issues due to smoke and a darkened interior, and concern over the risk of injury from exiting by way of the windows [which were more than 7 feet from the ground], negatively affected passengers trying to evacuate the motorcoach.”
• “Having a secondary door [in motorcoaches] for use as an emergency exit would expedite the evacuation process and reduce the need for passengers to jump from windows, thereby mitigating the potential for fatalities and injuries.”
One of NTSB’s recommendations stemming from the Orland crash is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) require all new motorcoach designs to include a secondary door for use as an additional emergency exit. (Some motorcoaches do have a second door, but an industry expert tells me that they are rare.)
As in the Orland crash, difficulty in evacuating was one of the major safety issues in the 1988 Carrollton bus crash. The vehicle was a former school bus that was built just a few days before the critical 1977 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for school buses went into effect.
When a pickup truck crashed head-on into the bus, which was carrying a church youth group, gasoline from the bus’ punctured fuel tank was ignited. The front door was disabled by the crash and blocked by flames. The only other emergency exit on the bus was the rear door.
Many of the 67 people on the bus didn’t make it out. Twenty-seven people — mostly teenagers — died in the inferno.
In the wake of the Carrollton crash, new measures were implemented to enhance school bus safety. For example, FMVSS 217 was revised to require that the total area of emergency exits be based on the designated seating capacity. Also, Kentucky went on to require nine emergency exits, flame-retardant seats and floors, and other safety enhancements for its school buses.
Now, more than 25 years after the Carrollton crash and the lessons learned from it, it’s devastating to hear of students and adults struggling to evacuate from a motorcoach on fire. NTSB’s call for requiring a second door on motorcoaches is a recommendation that makes sense, especially in light of the emergency evacuation enhancements that were made to school buses after Carrollton.
In a statement on the agency’s Orland truck-motorcoach crash findings, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart put it this way: “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.”
Thomas McMahon is executive editor of School Bus Fleet.