Federal bus fatality count 'just doesn't add up'
The sleepy driver of a motor coach carrying members of the First Baptist Church of Eldorado, Texas, on a sightseeing tour in fall 2003 weaved erratically for miles before swerving off the interstate and striking a parked semi-truck. The impact crushed the front of the bus and ripped loose seats.
This crash in Tallulah, La., killed eight people and made national news. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which monitors safety and investigates crashes, blamed the fatigued driver — and raised broad safety concerns about inadequate federal oversight and poor seat design.
But if lawmakers or the public searched for the deaths in that Oct. 13, 2003, crash in the official statistics of motor coach accidents presented by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), they would not find them.
In its 2007 report, "NHTSA's Approach to Motor Coach Safety," the agency said two occupants of motor coaches died in 2003. The agency, which is responsible for keeping track of accidents and fatalities, updated that number to three in testimony March 30 before the Senate's Surface Transportation Subcommittee.
A USA TODAY review of federal accident data, news reports and interviews with local law enforcement authorities discovered at least 14 accidents and 32 motor coach occupant deaths not included in NHTSA's official tally of motor coach crashes from 2003 to 2009.
Bus safety advocate Brad Brown of Beaumont, Texas, whose daughter, Ashley, 16, was among the two members of a girl's soccer team who died in a bus accident March 30, 2006, says he isn't surprised. The number of deaths he sees reported in news stories always seemed high compared with the official statistics.
"When I just think about the deaths that I know about and I look at the annual data that NHTSA reports, it just doesn't add up," Brown says.
Issues with data
When NHTSA calculates motor coach fatalities, it relies on the massive Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, which holds detailed records of every fatal crash in the country.
The system contains no official definition for motor coach, so statisticians must rely on a crude approximation for these buses known as "Cross Country/Intercity Bus." Motor coaches are sometimes listed under other categories.
To some extent, NHTSA officials are hostage to the information they receive from local authorities. The agency has tried for years to improve the data reporting, holding training sessions for state officials who code the data. Mistakes still occur.
In the case of the Tallulah crash, the accident is listed under the category "Unknown Bus Type." The NTSB labeled the bus a motor coach in its investigation and in a recommendation to NHTSA.
The accident that killed Ashley Brown reveals another issue with the FARS data. The bus carrying her soccer team was a slightly smaller bus the NTSB labeled "mid-size." The NTSB says these buses perform trips nearly identical to the ones by motor coaches and have similar safety deficiencies.
Investigators found 33 occupant deaths from 2000 through 2008 on these buses. None of these cases was included in the NHTSA motor coach data, the NTSB said. Nine additional deaths in these buses occurred in 2009, USA TODAY found.
"It's shocking to hear that this accident is not accounted for in determining whether to make changes in how we regulate transportation," Brown says of his daughter's crash.
Twist of the knife
Jessica Weishair, 16, a high school sophomore from Pelican Rapids, Minn., was on her way home from a band trip to Chicago on April 5, 2008, when the school's rented motor coach went off the road and rolled. She was flung from the bus and crushed beneath it.
Officials who coded the accident information listed the vehicle as a transit bus like those used to transport people in cities, although it was a motor coach manufactured by Van Hool. The accident was not included in NHTSA's motor coach statistics.
As a result, the death was not among those cited in NHTSA's controversial proposal last year to require seat belts on motor coaches.
Weishair's father, Kim, has campaigned for improved bus safety since the accident. He says he thinks Jessica would have lived if her bus had been equipped with seat belts. When told his daughter's crash hadn't been counted in motor coach accidents, he said he was stunned.
"It really takes that knife that's sticking out of your heart and twists it a little bit more," Weishair says. "It's not going to bring her back, but I do want her counted in these statistics."